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Ahead of weekend protest, Palmer police chief placed on leave for ‘inappropriate’ Facebook posts about Black Lives Matter

The Palmer Police Department headquarters in Palmer, photographed on June 3, 2020. (Marc Lester / ADN)

PALMER — Palmer’s police chief is on indefinite paid leave as officials investigate his “inappropriate” Facebook comments about Black Lives Matter and other issues.

That news comes ahead of what organizers have dubbed “A peaceful protest for Black Lives Matter” planned for Saturday in Palmer that’s now the subject of efforts to rally counter protesters.

Chief Dwayne Shelton was placed on paid leave Tuesday after inflammatory Facebook posts he made before becoming chief surfaced this week amid the national protests and riots in the wake of 46-year-old George Floyd’s death during his May 25 arrest in Minneapolis.

Shelton, who started with the department as an officer in 1999, was promoted to chief in December. He earns about $46 an hour and just over $95,700 a year, according to the city’s pay plan.

His most controversial posts date back to 2018, when Shelton already served as commander, the department’s second-in-charge.

Shelton called the Black Lives Matter movement “a hate group plain and simple” and drew attention to a video apparently asserting that high levels of false reporting are common among sexual assault victims. He also insulted the concepts of a gender-based wage gap and transgender identity.

“White privilege is a rubbish notion that is used to excuse the lack of hard work and motivation on certain members of society,” Shelton wrote in the same post with the Black Lives Matter comment. "Life is not fair it never will be, it is life. Some people from every race have certain things easier than others and some people of every race have things that are more difficult.”

Frances Kessler, a 32-year-old Palmer resident who identifies as transgender, saw some of the first posts Monday airing Shelton’s comments and created her own.

“How can we trust our local police to be held accountable if this is the standard being set. Disgusting,” she wrote. “Dwayne shelton, we see you, and we’re coming for your job.”

“I don’t personally know this man ... The only thing I know about him is the reflection of his character based on his words,” she said. “So do I want the man removed or do I want the ideals removed? The real question is can he unlearn that behavior? And if he cannot unlearn that behavior, absolutely he should be removed.”

The city of Palmer issued a statement about putting Shelton on leave on Facebook Tuesday evening: “The City of Palmer (City) rejects the ideas contained in the past inappropriate social media postings by Palmer Police Chief Shelton who is currently on administrative leave with pay. Instead the City recognizes and respects the diversity of our society and promotes the principles of tolerance and equality embedded in the Constitutional underpinnings of our Nation."

The city is reviewing the police department’s diversity training practices, it said.

By Wednesday afternoon, the city’s post had nearly 700 comments. Some were positive. Many others expressed dismay, like one commenter who criticized Palmer police for “giving in to a small group of trolls. Alaska is different. We don’t need that lower 48 bs here. ALL LIVES MATTER. Period.”

The city doesn’t have a specific social media policy to guide its decision about the police chief, officials say.

Instead, they will evaluate the content of Shelton’s posts in the context of his position while ensuring his rights are protected, according to acting city manager Brad Hanson.

“The first thing we had to do was basically kind of stabilize the situation,” Hanson said Wednesday, adding now the city will decide what steps to take. “Obviously it’s a volatile situation. So we want to do what’s appropriate for everybody involved including our people.”

Shelton is on “indefinite” leave pending a decision, he said.

Several Palmer city council members declined to be interviewed, saying Shelton’s review is a personnel issue outside their authority.

The council isn’t involved in personnel matters unless the situation warrants an executive session, where any discussion can’t be shared with the public, council member Richard Best said in a text message.

“I would also like to add in a free and open society, differing views and opinions must be allowed to be heard,” Best continued. “I stand in support of the First Amendment for anyone within our community.”

Council member Sabrena Combs, who plans to attend Saturday’s protest, said in a text that she has “faith that the community of Palmer will remain peaceful and open to all ideology.”

The protest was planned before Shelton’s posts came to light. The organizer is an 18-year-old recent Palmer High School graduate who said she obtained city permits and has been in contact with law enforcement. She declined to comment for this story.

Several social media posts this week rallied counter protesters, including one that appeared on several groups calling on Alaska patriot group members: “Lets not let those hood-rats destroy our state; like they’ve done to every state they’ve marched in. See you there!”

The author of those posts did not return a request for more information.

Hanson said the city is aware of the protest and talk of counter-protests.

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