Former chief warns of ‘witch hunt’ against police

Mike Hicks during his tenure as Cordova police chief. (Aug. 13, 2019) Photo by Zachary Snowdon Smith/The Cordova Times

Mike Hicks, former Cordova police chief and current Cordova fire chief, repudiated a city council memo including complaints against the Cordova Police Department.

At a March 17 meeting, Cordova City Council voted 4-3 to remove from its agenda a memo suggesting that all city departments be periodically evaluated. The memo, which focused mainly on the police department, reported public complaints regarding officers’ alleged failure to wear masks while on duty, and officers allegedly “singling out individuals and harassing them,” among other issues.

The memo was removed from the agenda after it was argued that complaints concerning police should more properly be directed to the city manager than to the council.

“I think the police are getting a bum rap here,” said Councilman Tom Bailer, who voted to remove the memo. “You don’t throw your personnel under the bus, especially when you don’t have the facts.”

However, Councilman Jeff Guard, who co-authored the memo with Councilwoman Melina Meyer, contended that section 2-4 of Cordova’s city charter empowers the council to deal directly with issues like those reported in the memo. Following the meeting, City Manager Helen Howarth said she did not feel that Meyer and Guard had gone over her head by submitting the memo.

“My view of this whole thing is that it is turning into a witch hunt directed at the police department by a few individuals,” Hicks wrote in a four-page letter to city leaders. “Yes, mistakes have been made. People learned from them. How can you expect anyone to concentrate on their job and be effective when they are continually [being] picked apart by a few individuals that are trying to push an agenda? This needs to end now. It will destroy your police department.”

Hicks denied some claims made in the memo and confirmed others. Hicks confirmed reports of on-duty officers not wearing masks while interacting with the public, and said that officers do not wear masks during close interactions and when giving directions to people. Facial expression is important, Hicks wrote.

Elsewhere in the U.S., little consensus has emerged on the question of police wearing masks. Police in Chicago, Los Angeles and New York are required to wear masks in most circumstances, though in some other communities police are exempt from such rules. Health guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention do not explicitly recommend that officers wear masks under typical circumstances, though they do recommend that anyone taken into custody be given a mask or cloth face covering.

Hicks wrote that he had never received a credible report of an officer harassing an individual, but suggested that some individuals duly penalized for infractions like parking violations or refusing to leash their dogs might interpret those penalties as harassment.

However, at an April 7 council meeting, one member of the public disputed Hicks’s claims. Dorne Hawxhurst, the wife of Guard, described an incident in which a police officer allegedly accosted an unnamed senior member of city staff and threatened to arrest them for failing to leash a puppy. Hawxhurst also criticized Hicks’s assertion that officers should not wear masks during close interactions with the public.

“All these things point to a department in need of review, and all of them took place after the police survey, so I would not have then had an opportunity to comment about them, but I am happy to do so today, and I have 100% confidence in your ability to guide the police department back onto a correct course,” Hawxhurst told Howarth. “I think that you’re doing a terrific job at a very difficult time.”

In response to complaints that the department’s facility is not welcoming to the public, Hicks wrote that some features of the facility that may seem unwelcoming are necessary safety measures, or are the result of limited staffing. Some other local facilities employ similar measures, such as Cordova Community Medical Center, which sometimes requires visitors to be buzzed in, Hicks wrote. The department is planning to refurbish the building’s lobby area and to improve signage, Police Chief Nate Taylor said.

“To sum up, Cordova’s police department does not have the problems or need a culture change like many in the Lower 48,” Hicks wrote. “Please stop trying to make it one. Take care of your people, and your departments. Even the most loyal dogs are only loyal to a point. The same can be said for people.”

Hicks’s letter was sent to city council and to Mayor Clay Koplin ahead of the council’s March 17 meeting, and was discussed at the council’s April 7 meeting. The April 7 meeting was not livestreamed due to technical problems. Hicks’s letter can be found in the council’s April 7 meeting packet, or at cdv.tiny.us/hicksletter.

Integrity of survey disputed

Hicks also questioned the reliability of a public opinion survey commissioned by the city in August 2020, weeks after Hicks retired as police chief. The survey indicated that 50% of Cordovans were satisfied with the police department’s performance and that 21% were dissatisfied. The survey identified concerns around perceived under-enforcement of drug laws, staffing levels at the then three-officer department, and other issues. Consulting firm Agnew::Beck carried out the survey, which was publicized via Cordova Radio, The Cordova Times, the city’s email newsletter and other local channels.

In a March 25 Facebook comment, Hicks asserted that responses gathered in the survey might not have come from Cordova residents.

“The survey was open to anyone who has a computer so those responses could come from anywhere inside or outside Cordova,” Hicks wrote. “The only way to verify whether this is an accurate response is to verify one on one with the people being surveyed.”

Howarth, however, defended the survey’s integrity. Agnew::Beck reported that some responses were received from typical Cordova IP addresses, she said. An IP address is a numeric designation that can be used to identify the location of a computer. Additionally, most respondents submitted written comments to the survey, and specific references to local places, people and events within those comments helped confirm the responses as authentic, Howarth said.

“We feel very confident that all the responses came from inside Cordova,” Howarth said. “I don’t believe a serious case could be made that the results were somehow hacked by outsiders interested in interfering with our ability to appropriately police Cordova.”

Both Howarth and Taylor said that public feedback provided by the survey has proved informative and useful for the department.

Hicks also raised the fact that the survey drew on a sample of 203 respondents, and did not collect responses from all Cordova residents. Cordova’s total population is 2,169, according to 2019 Census Bureau estimates.

By comparing the sample size to the size of the total population, it’s possible to calculate a poll’s confidence level, or the probability that the attitudes of the sample group accurately reflect the attitudes of the population as a whole. The confidence level standard in the polling industry is 95% or more. Allowing for a 5% margin of error, a sample of 203 respondents drawn from a total population of 2,169 yields a confidence level of about 87%. This rough estimate suggests the poll data from Cordova’s policing survey to be moderately reliable: far sounder than anecdotal evidence, but below national polling industry standards. In order for a poll of a 2,169-person community to reach the standard confidence level of 95%, a sample size of about 326 would be required.

Howarth said that the survey’s primary goal was to identify issues of public concern that the city could address, and that poll numbers were of secondary importance. The survey’s polls were not intended to be statistically valid, Howarth said.

“To me, it’s not about whether it’s statistically valid, it’s about the issues that are raised,” Howarth said. “This is designed to help make the police department as responsive and as responsible as it can be… And it’s not just the police department. It’s our harbor, it’s our Parks and Rec Department, it’s everything. We always should be looking for how we can do our work better and how we can serve the public better.”

Cordova’s policing survey results compare favorably to national numbers. In 2020, Gallup found that just 48% of Americans had confidence in the police, a five-point drop from the previous year. This contrasted a sharp increase in public confidence in other institutions such as the medical system and the public school system. Gallup found that, from 2019-2020, confidence in the police rose seven points among Republicans to 82%, and fell six points among Democrats to 28%.