Palmer City Council

Annika Gagnon, an incoming senior at Palmer High School, stood in silence in front of the Palmer City Council Tuesday.

PALMER — City of Palmer Manager John Moosey issued a statement on Monday detailing his decision to reinstate Palmer Police Chief Dwayne Shelton after three weeks of paid leave.

Shelton had been suspended while acting city manager Brad Hanson reviewed posts he made on his personal Facebook page that spurned outrage online. After the June 6 peaceful protest and vigil for victims of racist police violence was attended by nearly 2,000 people, the Palmer City Council heard extensive testimony at their June 9 meeting, even more members of the public offered their testimony to the council. In total, 32 people testified to the council in person with 21 expressing their opposition to Shelton’s reinstatement and seven speaking in favor of Shelton. Of the comments submitted via email to be read into the record, 13 were in favor of Shelton and three in opposition, totaling 24 people and organizations who submitted testimony against Shelton and 20 who spoke in favor.

“We will make a difference. We have to make a difference to this. The rights that people are talking about are concerned about and don’t have, we all want for them. I know without a doubt we don’t want anybody denied from that and so we need to work through this. Words do matter, that’s why we had so many people here tonight,” said Moosey. “We will learn. I don’t want to say too much because I don’t know. I don’t know how best to move forward with our policies and increase confidence in us. I need to hear from those folks from them as opposed to us telling them how it has to be and I think that’s part of the problem is we are telling people how they need to feel and we need to listen to those, and we did that tonight as a city council.”

The comments from the public began with Cheri Sobczak-Crippen, who had submitted 16 pages of testimony to the council via email for their June 9 meeting.

“I have a right to my opinion. I didn’t agree with everything that the Chief had said in his Facebook posting but he has a right to say that, as do I and any other people who disagree with him. Disagreeing with someone is not hate speech, inciting some harm on someone is hate speech. Having a different opinion is not hate speech,” said Sobczak-Crippen. “Young people may not have studied that in school but we know what the freedom of speech is.”

Crippen was followed by the Mat-Su Martin Luther King Jr., Foundation President Aundra Jackson, who said that even members of the council and staff with the city of Palmer who clicked the like button on Shelton’s posts should be fired.

“If the city of Palmer had applied just a basic code of ethics as a social club usually adapts, the police chief would not be on duty, same as Councilman Best,” said Jackson. “There are plenty of checks and no balances. The government is a good old boy club. Yes there may be codes of ethics on the books but those codes of ethics are rendered useless if not applied but misused.”

The crowd of those who chose to comment were made up of indigenous people, black people, and other persons of color. As the 27th speaker, Kalani Ross, described himself as the oddity, a black man in favor of retaining Shelton.

“I will support Mr. Shelton because he told the truth. If anything I can stand by, it’ll be the truth and facts. The numbers don’t lie and anybody who disregards the numbers, you’re lying to yourself,” said Ross.

A group of three Ahtna indigenous tribal leaders from Chickaloon addressed the council together and later provided support during emotional testimony. Shawna Larson asked the council members to pronounce the Ahtna name for the land the meeting was held on and welcomed the council to their indigenous land. Lisa Wade feared for victims of assault that would not feel comfortable reporting to the police and had a heated exchange with Mayor Edna DeVries after speaking past her allotted time.

“We have the ability to make a change whether it’s nationwide, state wide, or community wise and it can start here by changing the chief of police, by not allowing him to be reinstated in a powerful position that influences not only him but this entire community,” said Tristan Hosman.

A 2020 graduate of Palmer High School, Aurora Till, organized the peaceful protest that occurred on June 6, filing the request for special assembly with city staff with an estimate of 100 people. Till withstood a barrage of comments online and orchestrated the protest along with black, indigenous and people of color youth without any instances of violence. On Tuesday, as Till became emotional explaining to the council how Shelton’s reinstatement did not instill trust in victims of sexual assault within the community.

“It is infuriating that you guys are letting this happen,” said Till.

Members of the public were funneled from the City Hall entrance on Cobb Street into the council chambers for their testimony before leaving through the Bailey Street exit. As Till continued to deliver her testimony through tears, Larson and Wade came back into the chambers and stood behind Till with their hands on her shoulders. Till was one of three people who offered public testimony during the second section in the meeting after the rest of the council business had been conducted, well past 11 p.m.

“What took place on June 6 was powerful and I will never apologize for what took place. Palmer is a predominantly white community and I have seen racism all around me my entire life. I sit here today in solidarity with black and indigenous peoples. I sit here because the majority of them don’t feel safe approaching people in power in our community,” said Till. “Growing up in the Valley as a citizen of Palmer, I feel it is my duty to develop and encourage a community where everybody feels accepted and safe. As young organizers know this is not the last time you will be seeing and hearing from us. I will always fight against the injustices I see and I will absolutely not tolerate racism in my own community.”

While the peaceful protest on June 6 went off without any instances of violence, a brief fracas occurred following public testimony on Tuesday. Palmer Police Commander Shane LaCroix was present and escorted one member of the public to the exit following her comments.

“I’ve been hearing a lot of emoting and not a lot of facts. I’ve been hearing a lot of exaggeration and extrapolation and I feel like I’m grateful for the right to free speech and if people can talk about people being racist and all of us being racist, certainly it’s true but I don’t think that people of color or indigenous people have a better idea of what racism is because if we’re all racist then they are also racist, as racist as anyone else,” said Megan Chris.

Palmer High School International Baccalaureate Diploma graduate Olivia Beck was one of a handful of white allies that spoke in solidarity with black, indigenous and peoples of color and one of an even smaller handful of IB Diploma grads to speak to the council.

“I am afraid to have Dwayne Shelton in change of the PPD, afraid his transphopic, racist homophobic, and misogynistic words are evidence that he is not fit to serve in a position interfacing with the public. His explicit biases should disallow him from holding a job where he has so much power. Mr. Shelton has proven himself absolutely incapable of justly serving this community,” said Beck.

Following the death of George Floyd under the knee of Derek Chauvin of the Minneapolis Police Department on May 25, protests have taken place across the world in the name of ending police brutality. On Tuesday, Annika Gagnon, Veri Di Suvero and Kelsey Schober each stood silently during their three minutes of testimony, together eclipsing the eight minutes and 46 seconds it took for Floyd to die.

“Your implicit bias is going to color your decisions in your job, in your personal life, anywhere that you are making a decision and I believe that Dwayne Shelton is not the correct person for Palmer Police Chief. We say that Palmer is Alaska at its best and if that were true we would elect and hire public officials who believe in the equality of all people, who believe in survivors of sexual assault, who are willing to learn around the history of the place that they live and learn about other people and other cultures and unlearn their racism unlearn their implicit biases,” said Julia Safaric.

Radio Free Palmer volunteer Mike Chmielewski spoke during the second segment of public comment and proposed that Shelton himself be involved in face-to-face conversations about how to improve policing and restore trust between PPD and the community. A majority of members of the council took time during their council comments at the end of the meeting to agree with Chmielewski, saying that Shelton should be part of the solution.

“The city of Palmer, Palmer Police Department, Chief Shelton have a trust issue, something that we need to be sure to regain the trust of the public that frankly right now isn’t really sure that they can trust our police department. I like Mike’s idea of Chief Shelton being a part of that and that’s definitely something that I would hope that maybe he could do, reach out to the public and be a part of regaining that trust,” said Berberich.

Berberich asked that Moosey bring reports to future meetings on the progress of his press release bullet points for how to improve the relationship between PPD and the community. Many spoke on the presence of racism in the Mat-Su Valley, including indigenous people who experience less instances of racism due to the lack of color of their skin. As the only minority on the Palmer City Council, Sabrena Combs spoke about racism from her own personal experience.

“I ache. I truly ache for my brothers and sisters of color and the youth who spoke here tonight and for survivors of sexual assault who no longer feel safe in our community,” said Sabrena Combs. “We can support our police while also supporting those that have experienced discrimination at the same time.”

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