Whistleblower calls for change within Sitka Police Department

‘My family went through hell,’ - Mary Ferguson, former detective
Published: Feb. 19, 2021 at 9:28 PM AKST
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - Three former employees of the Sitka Police Department who sued the City and Borough of Sitka over claims that they were treated unfairly and forced out of jobs, have settled their disputes for a combined total of nearly $900,000.

One of the plaintiffs, Mary Ferguson, also won the right to have an independent investigator evaluate the department. Investigator Eric Smith, a retired superior court judge, recently released his findings and recommendations in an 81-page report.

“There is a general consensus that he; (Sgt. Lance Ewers), is a very smart and capable man with a very strong and sometimes overbearing personality. But I did not get the sense that anyone views him neutrally- they either like him and find him easy to work with, or they most certainly do not,” this is a quote from page 41 of the report by Smith.

Ferguson hopes the report will lead to meaningful change within the department but is skeptical the city will embrace the investigator’s suggestions.

Alaska’s News Source asked Sitka’s mayor, assembly members, the police chief and a police sergeant for comment about the report. John Leach, City and Borough of Sitka municipal administrator, replied on their behalf and directed police department employees to disregard our inquiries.

“In the settlement, the CBS recognized that Ms. Ferguson may undertake an investigation of the SPD on her own initiative and at her own expense, which is the right of any person if so inclined. The CBS in no way agreed to, encouraged, or condoned such an investigation,” Leach said in his written response.

Leach declined to comment in detail, citing the confidentiality of past and present employees.

“As for the report and its recommendations, I have studied them and will give them due consideration in the exercise of my responsibilities. I have discussed the report and its recommendations in detail with SPD Chief of Police Robert Baty,” he said, in the prepared statement.

Ferguson said she’s disappointed no one from the city has reached out to her to discuss the report and said even as the lawsuits were underway, retaliation continued against another former employee, Ryan Silva, which directly affects her since they are a couple.

“It should not be this hard to protect my rights as an employee,” Ferguson told Alaska’s News Source Wednesday. “My goal was to dig deep into the issues, but to also bring change to the police department,” she said.

“An agency that’s lost three lawsuits and almost paid a million dollars, lost the only native detective that it’s ever had, that kind of agency probably doesn’t want to read an investigation. The kind of agency that lets police bullies continue working within it probably doesn’t really care what an independent investigator found,” Jim Davis, an attorney for Ferguson and the other plaintiffs, told Alaska’s News Source Thursday.

Speaking out

The investigation report says Police Chief Robert Baty fired Ferguson when she refused to return to work as a nightshift patrol officer, something that gave the appearance of a demotion from her role as a detective but was also difficult as a working mother.

Ferguson perceived the change in her job as retaliation for speaking out about sexual and gender harassment she’d experienced and her ongoing difficulties with a supervisor.

At the time Ferguson, Silva and Noah Shepherd had filed lawsuits, the department had a different police chief. As the saga continued, the supervisor with whom they’d all had caustic interactions, Lance Ewers, was demoted from lieutenant to sergeant, which gave that him access to the protective benefits of union membership.

Ferguson, Silva, a detective who also did investigative work with the Coast Guard, and Shepherd, a jail employee, are no longer employed by the police department. But Ewers, described by the investigator as a “lightning rod for internal turmoil,” remains.

“It absolutely makes me feel betrayed,” Ferguson said.

“I just would expect them to take responsibility and hold themselves accountable for what for what they know has been happening instead of just trying to turn their back or sweep it under the rug or pay me off or pay it off, pay Ryan off,” she said.

The findings

Investigator Smith focused on allegations of improper behavior, sexual harassment, retaliation, abuse of power and police misconduct.

“While there may well have been issues of racism, sexual harassment and gender discrimination in the department in the past, that is not the case at this time,” Smith wrote in his report.

He also found that “while there were troubling allegations of retaliation, misconduct, abuse of power and improper behavior in the past, I did not find any such issues after Chief Baty became chief.”

Still, Smith made the observation that Baty is rigid with his command expectations and that he ought to be more aware that he “... has taken some actions that provide an appearance, at least, of retaliation.”

Also of concern was Baty and Ewers’ roles in January 2020 of advancing a domestic violence investigation of Silva, who was in a custody dispute with his ex-wife. The department got the Office of Children’s Services involved. Ultimately, nothing came of the domestic violence investigation, which started when Silva’s ex-wife reported footprints near her residence. But in his report, Smith detailed why the intensity with which the investigation was pushed was troubling.

“Given Sgt. Ewers’ extensive involvement in the many issues that underlay the litigation filed by Mr. Silva against the City, it is extremely difficult to understand why he was so involved in this investigation, as that involvement so strongly suggested a substantial conflict of interest and could readily be read as a way for Sgt. Ewers to get back at Mr. Silva for the many allegations he had made against Sgt. Ewers over the years,” Smith wrote.

Smith’s report makes several recommendations, including that “the department should place a high priority on formal training in the areas of sexual harassment, gender discrimination, and the rights of whistleblowers.”

“We haven’t washed our hands or given up on the idea that the police department needs to be accountable and needs to be fair to women and minorities who want to work there. And until that happens, we’re not done. We’ll never be done until that happens. We don’t care how long it takes,” Davis said.

In his report, Smith said Ferguson “had a very good reputation in the department for her abilities, particularly in investigation and working with witnesses and victims.”

Ferguson misses the work.

“Am I hurt by it? I absolutely am. I could be doing great things right now. I could be solving cases right now. I can be protecting children and victims of abuse right now, but I’m not,” she said.

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