Former Anchorage police chief was secretly suspended in 2015, court documents reveal

Police vehicle.
Police vehicle.(KOSA)
Published: Aug. 13, 2017 at 2:46 AM AKDT
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The Anchorage Police Department suspended a former police chief without pay more than two years ago, but residents never would have known if not for a fluke disclosure in a civil lawsuit.

City officials kept the punishment secret when it happened in 2015.

Even today, under a new mayor and new police leadership, the department remains quiet about details of the suspension.

A recent order from a judge, however, reveals that Chief Mark Mew was placed on unpaid leave for two weeks because an independent investigation commissioned by the municipality found he failed to act immediately when he learned a lieutenant had impaired investigations into sexual assault and illegal drug dealing by members of the Alaska National Guard.

Mew was appointed chief in 2010 by then-Mayor Dan Sullivan. For the duration of Mew's five-year stint as the city's top cop, the Municipality of Anchorage was locked in a bitter legal battle with two minority officers -- Eli Feliciano and Al Kennedy -- who alleged discriminatory practices within the department then sued claiming they were retaliated against.

Superior Court Judge Frank Pfiffner described the fight as "the legal equivalent of the trench warfare employed by the combatants on the Western Front in World War I."

The analogy is not as hyperbolic as it sounds.

The first of two jury trials lasted 18 days, at the time the longest for a civil case in state history. When that group of the officers' peers failed to reach consensus on the retaliation charge, the second jury met five days longer than the first. Fifty witnesses have been deposed and thousands of pages of evidence produced. Two-hundred and sixty-six pages of substantive decisions were produced. The Supreme Court even weighed in.

At the end of it all, the second jury ruled against the municipality and found that APD leadership had retaliated against the two longtime drug detectives, even trying to get the two longtime drug detectives indicted on federal and state charges for crimes they did not commit.

One of the final filings in the Feliciano-Kennedy case was a 27-page document released by Pfiffner in July that forced the city to pay $2.7 million to the aggrieved officers, a punitive figure that was even greater than what the jury had awarded.

A key reason the judge upped the penalty is the city's use of ambiguous criminal investigations to avoid disclosure of key information to the jury in the civil trial. Mew also claimed he found a document that may have bolstered the detectives' case in his desk between the first and second trials, something the judge found dubious.

In the middle of Pfiffner's order explaining why he believes enhanced attorney fees are appropriate, the judge made the first-ever public references to Mew's suspension and offered new details from a confidential investigation prepared by Lt. Col. Rick Brown, a retired Pennsylvania state trooper who was hired by the city to determine APD's role in botched investigations of alleged rape and drug dealing by Guard members.

Channel 2 News requested a copy of Brown's report, but the municipality rejected the request, citing its role in another ongoing civil lawsuit filed by Lt. Tony Henry.

According to the judge's account of Brown's report, the investigator determined that Henry, a longtime officer who led the special victims unit, ordered his subordinates to disclose the names of Guard whistle-blowers and sexual assault victims to the top official in the Alaska National Guard, Gen. Tom Katkus.

In the second trial, lawyers representing the city and the plaintiffs represented Brown's report as absolutely factual, and the judge treats it as such.

On the other hand, Meg Simonian, who represents Henry, contends that the report is flawed and was prepared solely to target her client and to deflect attention away from wrongdoing by the city. She said the parties in the Feliciano-Kennedy suit ignored key problems because both sides believed portions of the document bolstered their case.

"Rick Brown admitted that he was hired to target Lieutenant Henry," Simonian said in an interview with Channel 2 News. "The idea that he was hired to investigate a situation in the Alaska National Guard has been completely disproven. He left out of his summary significant things that undermine his findings and conclusions."

Brown, reached by phone where he works now -- the Daigle Law Group in Pennyslvania -- said he was hired by the previous city attorney, Dennis Wheeler, not the former police chief. Other than that, Brown would only say that he is "kind of in confidentiality mode" until the Henry trial is done.

Still, leaning on the document and accepting it as factual, Pfiffner described Brown's version of events: "After the disclosures occurred, the investigative leads promptly dried up," the judge wrote. "The State of Alaska has never prosecuted any of the suspected Guard members for illegal drug charges or sexual assault."

Fast-forward to 2013 and Mew was aware of the potential serious problems with Henry. At that time -- heading into the first trial -- the lieutenant was a star witness against Feliciano and Kennedy, according to the judge's account of Brown's report. Rather than launching an investigation immediately, Mew delayed the case to preserve Henry as a witness against the black and Hispanic officers who believed they were discriminated against, Pfiffner wrote.

Henry was fired with cause and almost immediately sued the city over his firing.

"The citizens of Anchorage could well conclude that (the municipality) and its lawyers were more interested in winning the lawsuit than protecting the citizens of Anchorage from sexual assault and illegal drug dealing," the judge wrote.

Without the judge's document which contains that statement, literally one of thousands filed in the Feliciano-Kennedy case over a span of several years, Anchorage residents may never have known of Mew's suspension.

Former Mayor Sullivan did not return phone calls from Channel 2 News seeking an interview on the decision to hide the suspension from residents and on misconduct that happened within APD under his leadership.

Through the current city attorney, Bill Falsey, Mew declined to comment.

The former chief now splits time between his home in Eagle River and Africa. In a 2016 speech to University of Alaska Anchorage students, Mew said he was employed by Bering Straits Native Corporation and worked as a U.S. State Department contractor training 140-member "formed police units" on behalf of to operate United Nations peacekeeping missions in Mali, a country where the officers are not recognized by the citizenry as police.

One difference between Africa and the U.S., he told the students, is the lack of restrictions on what police can do. There is no need for probable cause to conduct a traffic stop or investigate a crime, Mew said, adding that there are no civil remedies if police behave badly.

"That whole part of what we would deal with in law enforcement or in government here is something that's not even on the radar screen for them," he said.

A human resources official from Bering Straits Native Corporation declined to confirm whether or not Mew is still an employee.

Assembly Member Dick Traini in an interview said that he and two of his colleagues -- Elvi Gray-Jackson and Paul Honeman -- urged the former and and current mayor to settle the Feliciano-Kennedy case.

"We told Mayor Sullivan, 'This is a loser. Do not take it forward.' The attorneys would say, 'We're going to win on appeal.' We told Mayor (Ethan) Berkowitz when he came in, 'Settle this case,'" Traini said.

Asked why the Assembly did not cut the legal department's budget for outside counsel, which played a key role in the city's defense of the Feliciano-Kennedy case, Traini said there is no mechanism to force the department to stop spending on a specific initiative and that the cut likely would have just meant reductions in other areas.

Traini would not speak about the Brown report or Henry's case, or in detail about his perception of Mew's actions, except to say, "I worked with Chief Mew. I'm glad he's gone," the Assembly member said.

Anchorage's current mayor, Ethan Berkowitz, and the city attorney, Bill Falsey, also declined to speak on-the-record about the former chief's suspension.

Berkowitz's spokesperson, Myer Hutchinson, said personnel rules prevent any city officials from commenting on disciplinary actions taken against employees.

A media lawyer in Anchorage does not buy that explanation: "it's unimaginable really that we are only finding out about this sort of as a fluke," said John McKay. "Why shouldn't the public just know about this generally? You have to be able to hold the police department, the mayor's office accountable. They work for us."

If applied consistently, the policy means that parents may not be informed if an independent investigation -- funded by taxpayers -- revealed that a middle school principal in the Anchorage School District had improper contact with a student that did not rise to the level of a criminal charge.

Similarly, if the city's interpretation of personnel rules holds constant, there is no discernible way for residents to find out if high-ranking city employees -- the mayor, the new police chief, the school superintendent, and so on -- faced severe discipline for their actions on the job.

In addition to the city's tendency to invoke personnel rules as a reason for failing to disclose misbehavior by employees, APD is in a minority of departments nationally that does not release daily arrest reports, according to Jeremy Rue, an assistant dean at the University of California School of Journalism.

"Going after the daily police blotter, that's just very typical, something that happens everywhere," he said. "It's a way to know what's happening in someone's community: to know what's going on, to know what police are responding to. The public funds the police so it's important for them to know, what are they doing? How are they protecting the community?"

Berkowitz promised to make the Municipality of Anchorage more transparent and did hire an innovation officer and implement an "open data" policy.

However, at about the same time the new policy took effect, the department was taking another step to restrict the flow of information about police activity: turning off police scanners.

Scanners historically provided journalists and residents a real-time, unfiltered glimpse at what police are doing by letting people listen to what police dispatchers are telling officers.

(Discussions about serious crimes were moved to private channels, and police agencies often put the scanners on a delay of several minutes or more to protect officers.)

Technological advancements were cited as a primary reason for shutting down the scanners in Anchorage and many other places around the country. Scanners were streamed live via many mobile apps, creating safety risks for officers because criminals would use the near-instant information to help get away with crimes.

While the city implemented a new system of disseminating information to citizens and media -- Nixle -- the ability to independently track police activity is now almost non-existent.

"The police decide what stories are important, when you get to hear them, what you get to hear," said John McKay, a longtime Alaska attorney who specializes in media law. "You have to be able to hold the police department, the mayor's office accountable. They work for us."

Many city officials declined to speak on-the-record with Channel 2 News for this report or did not respond to calls and emails, including former Chief Mark Mew, former Mayor Dan Sullivan, Mayor Ethan Berkowitz, Chief Justin Doll, and municipal attorney Bill Falsey. A frequent reason cited was the ongoing lawsuit from Lt. Tony Henry, which the municipality has already spent roughly $1 million defending and is slated to go to a jury trial next spring.