Columns 2015

Good can come out of a bad incident

I’m guessing that by now there are few in Alaska who haven’t seen or read about the incident in Sitka where three police officers are shown Tasering a drunken teenager. It’s pretty tough to watch. It’s even tougher for those of us brought up to respect the police as the ones we should run to when we feel we are in danger. While the teenager in question is clearly being less than cooperative, the idea of directly Tasering him to convince him to take his clothes off is just horrifying.

The young man’s name is Franklin Hoogendorn. He was, at the time, a student at Mr. Edgecumbe. He’s since left the school but did manage to graduate before returning to his home village of Koyuk. In an interview with the Alaska Dispatch News, Hoogendorn said that watching the video was “really intense” and that, “I hope something good can come of it.”

Well, some good has already started to come out of it. Backing slightly away from his position that while it may look bad, his officers did nothing wrong, Sitka Police Chief Sheldon Schmitt has invited the Alaska State Troopers to review the incident. So it would seem that the Sitka police are now open to other opinions on what happened in that video. And that’s a good thing because policing in a small town is inevitably very personal on many levels.  In small towns, it’s a rare occurrence when your policing doesn’t run into your neighbors, friends and grocery clerks.

However, there is another good that can come of this if Hoogendorn is truly sincere in wanting some good to come out of what looks so bad. He can open up to his community and his peers about the problems of being knee-walking drunk whether as a minor or an adult. In all likelihood, had he not been so drunk, this whole incident would either not have happened or he would have had enough of his senses still functioning to not resist the police demands that he disrobe prior to being Tased.

The problem is, when you’re so drunk you are staggering down the street, most of your critical faculties have gone underground for the duration and you make stupid decisions. None of this justifies the actions seen on the video, not even slightly, but it does speak to the issue of underage drinking in specific and public intoxication in general.

In case you’ve missed the headlines of the past few months, heroin is on the rise again and seems to be the drug of choice for many middle class youths. This has led, not surprisingly, to a re-evaluation of the penalties associated with drug use and cries for more treatment and less jail. While the heroin problem continues to grow in Alaska, it is still nowhere near the major problem that alcohol is. Young people who get drunk on a regular basis are killing the very brain cells they need for future success just as much as those shooting up heroin. Along with Spice, the decision to use any of these substances is about as stupid a choice as you can possibly imagine.

So if Hoogendorn really wants some good to come out of this terrible incident, he shouldn’t wait for the trooper’s report. He shouldn’t wait for an apology from the Sitka police force. He shouldn’t hold out for any kind of settlement to reimburse him for pain and suffering. What he should do is get out into his community and let his peers know just how terrible the consequences of being slobbering drunk can be. He can speak from experience… at least, as much of the experience he remembers… of being held down in a jail cell and Tased because he was too drunk to realize what a bad choice resisting actually was at that point.

This won’t change what happened to him. It won’t change a police culture that sometimes seems to act as though using a Taser instead of a gun justifies using it as much as possible. It won’t change the past. But it can possibly change the future for some of his friends and family. Sharing his experience can be the good that comes out of this horrible incident, no matter what any investigation shows. He can make a difference. I hope he does.