A divided Ketchikan Gateway Borough Assembly is asking lawmakers to add law enforcement to the list of classes protected from discrimination in Alaska. That’s after Borough Mayor Rodney Dial cast a tie-breaking vote in favor of the resolution.
On Monday, Ketchikan’s Borough Assembly took up a resolution asking the Alaska Legislature to add police officers to the state’s anti-discrimination law.
But as members of the public testifying were quick to point out, this resolution was in response to an equally contentious one.
“Make no mistake: this resolution was drafted as a direct backlash to a minority group challenging those in power and demanding that they deserve equal rights and protections under the law,” Ketchikan museum curator Ryan McHale said in front of the assembly on Monday.
“It comes two weeks after the assembly overrode Mayor Dial’s veto and asked the legislature to protect individuals from discrimination based on their sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression,” McHale said.
In response, Dial requested a similar resolution that would urge police officers and Christians be specifically protected from discrimination. The retired Alaska State Trooper insisted — without evidence — that police officers face more persecution than any group in the United States.
He repeated this assertion on Monday.
“I support this current resolution as an alternative and as a statement that the rights of the most persecuted group in America currently by far — law enforcement officers — are as important to this body as LGBTQ rights are,” Dial said.
Four residents offered comments at the meeting, one of which submitted a letter in place of live testimony. Of those, three opposed the mayor’s resolution.. A fourth said he was undecided but cited comments from an unnamed state trooper opposing the measure. No law enforcement officers spoke up during public comment.
In an unusual step, Dial cross-examined each of the critics of his resolution.
“If I could ask you the same question — Do all rights matter? And do police officers deserve the same protections as members of the LGBTQ community?” Dial asked McHale.
McHale replied that LGBTQ individuals — and other groups protected by the state’s human rights law, like disabled people, people of color and women — have faced discrimination throughout the nation’s history. He argued that laws that prohibit discrimination based on race, gender or sexual orientation exist precisely to ensure that everyone is afforded the same rights.
“Police officers have not historically been marginalized. Police officers hold power in our society. Not only hold power, but enforce that power,” McHale said.
The co-sponsors of the resolution were a retired police officer — Assembly Member Sue Pickrell — and a state corrections officer, Assembly Member Alan Bailey.
“The reason I put forward this resolution is the alarmingly negative attitude towards law enforcement nationwide that has led to increased discrimination,” Pickrell said. She’s a former Ketchikan Police Department detective.
She offered — without offering any specific examples — her perspective.
“It has become common for law enforcement officers to be denied services that provide food, lodging, exhibition, entertainment and other goods for public consumption,” she said.
Others on the assembly weren’t swayed. Assembly Member Felix Wong acknowledged that law enforcement officers face criticism and are under heavier scrutiny.
“But it’s not to the point where it’s a systemic disenfranchisement of people in uniform,” Wong said.
Wong also pointed out that attacks on people in uniform are already illegal under state law. Ketchikan City Council Member Janalee Gage noted that Alaska law sets harsher penalties for some crimes against police.
Assembly Member Austin Otos also opposed the resolution. He said it unnecessarily politicized policing. He suggested a mayoral proclamation was a better way to show the assembly’s support for law enforcement. Wong and Assembly Member Sven Westergard agreed.
Assembly Member David Landis cast the lone vote in favor of both measures — supporting state protections for both police and LGBTQ people in the community. He pointed out that the resolution’s supporters — Dial, Pickrell and Bailey — have worked in law enforcement.
“These are people that treated their jobs very seriously and understand the job that many of us don’t,” Landis said.
He said it wasn’t his place to determine whether the three had actually faced discrimination.
“If someone thinks they’ve been discriminated against, they have. I’m going to take them for their word on that,” Landis said.
But after public testimony had wrapped up, he called out the mayor for questioning members of the public that had criticized the pro-police resolution.
“I know how hard it is, your honor, for citizens to get up at the podium and speak. And I would just request that they don’t have to answer any questions if they don’t want to because it is just so hard to do,” Landis said.
With the assembly deadlocked 3-3, the borough mayor broke the tie. It passed with a resolution calling on the the state Legislature to add police officers to the list of classes protected from discrimination.
Assembly Member A.J. Pierce was absent and didn’t vote. That was notable — she had introduced the original LGBTQ rights resolution that sparked the debate.