The embattled chief of Palmer’s police department returned to work Monday after the city decided to let him keep his job.
Chief Dwayne Shelton was put on paid administrative leave in early June after Facebook posts from 2018 surfaced in which he called the Black Lives Matter movement “a hate group plain and simple” and in another post drew attention to a video apparently asserting that high levels of false reporting are common among sexual assault victims.
Shelton’s comments were brought to light by private citizens during national unrest and widespread protests over the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody. A peaceful Black Lives Matter rally in Palmer in early June drew a large crowd that included both protesters and Second Amendment rights supporters who said they came to make sure the event stayed peaceful.
Shelton was named chief in December after joining the department 1999 and rising through the ranks.
City Manager John Moosey announced the city’s decision about the police chief on Monday in a written statement that referenced the June 6 protest in Palmer.
Moosey declined comment when asked for information about how the decision was made, including who made the decision and on what basis. He limited his comments to statements released Monday
“The recent events of minority deaths caused by Law Enforcement and Facebook comments by Dwayne Shelton brought these issues to our front door. They will be addressed,” Moosey said in a statement. “We at the City of Palmer will be listening and seeing how our policies and procedures are causing unequal treatment. We do not have all the answers. However, as public servants we will strive to obtain those answers to enact change.”
The city is promising to enact a series of measures including an employee education program “to understand personal and racial bias.” The measures include: expanded police hiring to include personnel outside public safety; a review of all department use of force; provision and use of “functional, up to date and operable police body cameras”; a human-resources review of all formal complaints; following state laws on law officers involved in domestic abuse; and sharing the city’s findings with the Alaska Municipal League.
The city’s release included a statement from Shelton:
“I apologize to each of you for any mistrust or concern my past social media posts may have caused you. As a police officer I have always taken my responsibility seriously. During my tenure with the City of Palmer, I have consistently treated people fairly and made decisions based on crimes being committed and not on social status, sexual orientation, gender, race, or any other demographic. We all deserve to be treated fairly and with respect.”
In his statement, Shelton suggests the best way to make a report about law enforcement “prejudices, excessive force or abuse of police powers” is with police department heads, the state ombudsman, the commissioner of public safety or the Alaska Police Standards Council.
Shelton’s prior statements regarding sexual assault victims were not specifically addressed.
In Facebook comments from 2018, he said his views on false reporting and sexual assault were based on personal experience. He linked reports of sexual violence to “people saying #metoo” or “people jumping on the band wagon for attention.”
Alaska has the highest rate of sexual assault in the country.
Shelton’s comments regarding sexual assault reports disturbed leaders with the Chickaloon Village Traditional Council. Many tribal citizens and staff live in Palmer, and more do business there, according to Lisa Wade, council secretary.
Wade and traditional chief Gary Harrison issued a statement late Monday saying they were “extremely disappointed” the city chose to reinstate Shelton, whom they accuse of openly expressing racist, misogynistic and transphobic views that are “dangerous for black, indigenous people of color and especially for women.”
Harrison and Wade called Shelton’s posts on sexual assault survivors disturbing, given the state’s high rates and what they described as women not feeling safe to come forward to make reports.
“We also have problems of racism in Alaska, and here in Palmer,” the statement said. “It has never been safe for a person of color to file complaints against the police. It doesn’t mean abuses of power don’t happen, it just means they go undocumented and unresolved.”
Shelton and his family are longtime Palmer residents with solid support in the community and among law enforcement. A number of Palmer residents spoke in favor of Shelton at a city council meeting a few days after the protest rally. Several said they supported his right to free speech, even if they didn’t support his views. Others criticized the way viral social media posts led to calls for the chief’s ouster.
But several testified about concerns Shelton showed bias that could influence his policing. The council also received hundreds of emails that were not read into the record during the meeting, most opposed to the city retaining the chief.
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