Whistle blowers: demoted Sitka detectives ordered back to work

Published: Jul. 11, 2019 at 6:22 AM AKDT
Email This Link
Share on Pinterest
Share on LinkedIn

Two ousted detectives from the Sitka Police Department, who were demoted and later placed on administrative leave, continue to fight for their jobs.

Mary Ferguson and Ryan Silva are among three police department employees suing the City and Borough of Sitka over claims of workplace harassment and discrimination. Ferguson claims her complaints of on-the-job sexual harassment and gender discrimination resulted in little action, and that an offending employee landed a promotion while she found herself demoted from investigations back to patrol.

Silva similarly claims that his support of Ferguson, his whistleblowing on bad decisions, favoritism and internal cover-ups also resulted in his demotion to patrol.

Noah Shepard, a former jailer who'd hoped to become an officer, claims the same key individuals in Silva and Ferguson's disputes, also tormented him when he stood up to bullying by a lieutenant after an injury derailed Shepard's training at the police academy.

"We have three lawsuits for three different officers, all of whom claim different kinds of misconduct by the police department toward them," said James Davis, their attorney.

City assembly members declined to be interviewed for this story, citing the ongoing lawsuits. The law firm representing the City and Borough of Sitka did not return KTUU's call.

In court filings, the city has said its actions were "legitimate management decisions." It also states it "thoroughly investigated" Ferguson's "claims of harassment, discrimination, and retaliation" and that it "took reasonable action to promptly prevent and correct any alleged harassment."

"My guys just want to be cops, just want to serve the community. They don’t want money. They just want their jobs back," Davis said.

Silva and Ferguson told KTUU they've been ordered to return to work July 15, but in their demoted roles on patrol shift, and they're concerned changes made within the department are not substantial enough to protect them from harassment and retaliation.

The controversy has divided the department and the community, evident during sometimes emotional testimony before the city assembly, while behind the scenes confidential internal investigations into Ferguson and Silva took place.

When Ferguson and Silva were demoted and placed on leave, it taxed the staffing level of an already strained police department struggling to operate at full staff.

"When I first started there I thought that the environment was completely toxic. It was lord of the flies. No one was in charge except different little groups. and that challenge persists today," Jeff Ankerfelt, the department's then-police chief told assembly members Jan. 22.

Coupled with low pay, high turnover, low morale, and aging facilities, he called the situation to recruit and retain staff "dire," explaining "we are facing a public safety crisis here in Sitka. It's much like what the rest of the nation is experiencing. who wants to be a police officer anymore?"

Ferguson and Silva wanted the job, and they've done it. Former jailer Noah Shepard also wanted the police job, eager to become an officer.

Career hopes for all three of them sunk last year, they say, when they called out bad behavior and exposed mismanagement.

"They knew how much I loved being in the Investigations Division and they knew that I was good at it and they took that away from me. They took that away from me because they wanted to silence me," Ferguson told KTUU.

"Essentially they were trying to fire me for, you know, whistleblowing on them," Silva said during the same interview.

Ferguson, Silva, and Shepard spoke with KTUU by phone from Sitka.

"My my friends and family who worked there and left behind me shouldn't have to deal with abuse like they've been suffering over the past years, and like I suffered," Shepard said as he recounted his experience.

They are each suing the City and Borough of Sitka in separately filed cases.

After breaking his arm, which forced his early departure from the police academy, Shepard said a lieutenant in the Sitka Police Department ridiculed and humiliated him, Silva and Ferguson worked as detectives. Silva -- a seasoned investigator with the police and Coast Guard. Ferguson -- a rising up and comer training to take on sexual assault cases.

Silva and Ferguson faced reassignment to patrol, and Ferguson to the night shift, after the blew the whistle on what appeared to them to be a powerful trio protecting its own: Chief Ankerfelt, Lieutenant Lance Ewers, and City Manager Keith Brady.

"That's when she started getting in trouble. She had the nerve to say she's not taking it anymore," Davis said of Ferguson, his client.

Ferguson said as a new officer, she experienced sexual harassment, and in a separate incident, questioned why she was doing more work than her male counterpart.

Ewers "told me that I should be able to multi-task better because I was a female and my partner was a male, (that) my brain was wired differently," Ferguson said, calling the explanation "absolutely ridiculous."

When she raised the concerns, supervisors, including Ewers, Ankerfelt, and Brady, failed to take action, she said.

Silva, a firearms instructor, said when he expressed safety concerns about newly purchased automatic weapons, which he felt were unsafe for a staff untrained with operating them, he was told to keep quiet.

He also claims Ankerfelt and Ewers protected select individuals -- "good guys" -- from ticket enforcement and criminal investigation.

At the Jan. 22 assembly meeting, Ankerfelt, and Ewers said Silva's allegations were untrue.

Ewers called the allegations "unfounded and found to be false."

Ankerfelt said in his two-and-half years as chief he'd worked to improve how the department operated and chose a community police model over one in which residents are subjected to overzealous enforcement.

"We've promoted people who are empathetic and care and work hard to support their partners and we've disciplined people who have not done their jobs," Ankerfelt said during the meeting. "Now we're being sued for it and it's nothing but a form of harassment."

After twelve months, turmoil within the department is evident. Ankerfelt retired. City Manager Keith Brady got fired. Lieutenant Ewers chose to demote to sergeant, which allows him to have union representation.

Meanwhile, Silva and Ferguson have been ordered to return to work, still demoted, still re-assigned to patrol.

They want their detective jobs back, and they want assurances they'll be returning to a better work environment.

"We're not going to give this up until, you know, they do the right thing," Ferguson said.

Copyright 2019 KTUU. All rights reserved.