Controversy followed police chief to Hoonah

Hankla neglected to mention battery charge in his job application

Posted: Sunday, March 08, 2009

Editor's note: This is the second part of a series on the controversy surrounding the Hoonah Police Department.

Kate Golden / Juneau Empire
Kate Golden / Juneau Empire

Police Chief Jefferson Hankla has been through the grinder in Hoonah. But it's not his first time.

Since he was hired the first time as chief, he has survived several attempts to demote or fire him. One longtime Hoonah officer quit last year rather than work with him, and another officer remains hostile. Last week, Hankla was reinstated as chief despite a deplorable management audit and the mayor's recommendation to fire him. Hankla and the city are now being sued by two current dispatchers and one former officer.

Hankla entered this fire from a frying pan in Roberts, Ill., where the chief and four part-time officers quit in the wake of Hankla's hire as a new police officer.

Back in Roberts, village board president Rick Flessner said he wasn't surprised to hear of the current controversy in Hoonah.

"Jeff's an intelligent person, and I think that he would do a good job," said Flessner, "but he seems to get some miscues along the way that undermine his ability to serve."

The chief's view, as told in a May 2008 memo to the Hoonah City Council, was that the Roberts mess was unfair, and that it already has been worked over to death by his opponents.

Hankla has twice chosen to make public the council's executive sessions about him. However, he declined to comment for this story, citing legal advice.

Another small-town shake-up

The village of Roberts hasn't had a police officer of its own since it let Hankla go.

Like Hoonah, the 387-person, four-road town located in corn country in the middle of Ford County is a place where people wear more than one hat. Flessner, as president of Roberts' Village Board, is essentially a mayor. As such, he's police commissioner and liquor commissioner, but he also is a fire captain.

Flessner said Hankla shook up this small town in 2005 and 2006.

He also said Thursday that no one from Hoonah has ever asked him about it.

In 2005, Hankla applied for the job of police officer in Roberts. He was a retired insurance salesman originally from Houston, Texas, according to news reports.

Roberts' outgoing chief was a corn farmer as well as its sole certified police officer. The town also hired off-duty county sheriff's deputies to work in Roberts a few hours each week.

"When you're in a town of 387, anytime anyone is willing to serve and attend all those classes, you're pretty excited about it," Flessner said.

Just before the village board voted on his hire, Hankla, in the midst of a simulated school bus rollover and surrounded by other people, reportedly kissed another fire department volunteer.

She filed a police report against him for that kiss two days later.

The village board hired him later that same day. Flessner said they were loathe to let public sentiment drive him out since he hadn't been convicted of anything.

The police chief, instead of retiring, quit in protest the next day, along with the part-time deputies.

Hankla pleaded innocent to battery, according to court records. The case was not prosecuted and eventually resolved out of court in a restorative justice program, where Hankla apologized, Flessner said.

Later Hankla would call the charge false and "maliciously and politically motivated" in his May 2008 memo.

At the time, Roberts remained divided over its chief. The pending charge wasn't the only issue. According to Flessner, he wanted to intensify patrols in the village and write grants to get a separate police building. The village board didn't think the town needed that much policing.

"He had a lot of ideas that didn't necessarily fit well with our current fire chief," Flessner said. "He was wanting to change a lot of things. And in small towns, change doesn't come easily, nor is it accepted."

Ultimately, Hankla lost his job in mid-2006, technically over none of these things. At the Illinois Police Training Institute, he failed four times to run 1.5 miles fast enough (16 minutes, 21 seconds for his age group, according to the institute's Web site). The village board members were faced with two legal choices: pay to send him to another training or let him go.

They let him go.

"I really can't say anything derogatory to Jeff," Flessner said, who called him direct and intelligent. "He showed some interest in our small town, and I tried to channel that interest. I thought he'd made some errors in his judgment, the primary one here was the assault.

"Had that not happened, I think he'd still be working here. But he didn't pass his PTI (Police Training Institute), and by that time there was enough controversy, and enough division in the village, that I think it was best that we just not continue the relationship anymore, by law."

North to Hoonah

Hankla applied for a job as a police officer in Hoonah in mid-2006.

Flessner said that the chief at that time, Hugh Miller, called him as a listed job reference for Hankla but said Miller did not ask about the controversy in Roberts. The conversation was short, he said.

The council unanimously chose Hankla as the chief and public safety director in January of last year, but then made him acting chief after learning that a city ordinance required more experience. The city council lowered the qualifications for the job, and in a 4-2 vote rehired Hankla over Lieutenant Billy Mills, a 16-year officer who was raised in Hoonah.

Mills quit soon thereafter and is now a police officer in Craig. He sued Hankla and the city of Hoonah on Friday in Juneau Superior Court over the hiring process, Hankla's tenure and other issues involving the police department.

City Council member Joyce Skaflestad said she discovered Hankla's charge in Roberts during an Internet search and turned over the information to the council for more research, troubled that Hankla might have lied on his application.

"We asked the chief point-blank, and he explained basically that it was some mud-slinging and disgruntled employees that were trying to stir up some stuff," said council member Alan Fisher Sr.

In the May memo, Hankla told the council he hadn't disclosed the assault charge from Roberts in his job application because he had never been taken into custody.

Fisher was satisfied that the charges had been dropped. He has consistently sided with Hankla in his struggles.

Skaflestad, a former Hoonah magistrate, was not.

"Basically, it was a play on words," Skaflestad said.

A policeless town

The village of Roberts never hired a replacement for Hankla. The village pays the county sheriff's office $7,000 a year to patrol the town, which Flessner described as a bedroom community with many retired people. And any time the sheriff's deputies have to investigate something in a northern part of the county, they drive through Roberts.

"We haven't had much vandalism," Flessner said. "We're kind of policing ourselves."

• Contact Kate Golden at 523-2276 or

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