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Lawsuits allege hostile work environment at Unalaska police department, spur independent review

Berett Wilber
The suits describe a dysfunctional department, full of “workplace hostility and retaliation, a tolerance for officer misconduct, and even physical confrontation.” The officers accused in the suits fully deny any wrongdoing.

The city of Unalaska agreed to pay $765,000 to settle four separate lawsuits against its police department, all brought by former Unalaska Department of Public Safety employees who say they were either wrongfully fired or forced to quit due to harassment and bullying within the department.

Paying to settle the suits is not an admission of wrongdoing and is a common method used to resolve disputes.

The suits — brought by then-Sergeant John Merrion, and officers Ann Sotelo, Anthony Recco and Lisa Robinson — describe a dysfunctional department, full of “workplace hostility and retaliation, a tolerance for officer misconduct, and even physical confrontation,” according to one of the complaints filed at Unalaska Superior Court.

Northern Justice Project, LLC, an Anchorage-based law firm that focuses on civil rights cases, represented all four plaintiffs, although the cases were filed separately.

One case describes a young police officer who became “the latest in a long line of officers who have been significantly mistreated” by the department, and whose complaints were ignored by then-Police Chief Jay King.

The four cases brought against the police department were filed between October 2020 and May 2022. And while all suits were filed during King’s time as chief, many of the events named in the lawsuits predate King's time with the department.

One of the plaintiffs, Lisa Robinson, said she was terminated by John Lucking and Bill Simms, who led the department before King.

King resigned from the department in December, a month after the city settled the cases. King was named throughout the suits, which accused him of ignoring complaints of harassment and overlooking misconduct.

One complaint accuses King of acting aggressively towards officers, and of threatening an officer when she discovered King was using office supplies for his personal business.

King did not respond to several requests for comment.

The city of Unalaska, in its response to the complaint, denied the accusations against the department.

Two of the lawsuits focus some of their complaints on Officer Theresa Ah-Siu, who has been with the department since 2014, and one on Sergeant Kevin Wood, who joined the department in 2009 as an officer and became sergeant in 2017. Both are current Department of Public Safety employees.

Recco alleges Ah-Siu “subjected him to a sustained campaign of hostility … and verbal abuse.” Another called Wood “unhinged and violent.”

Wood denied all of the accusations in an interview, saying the lawsuits were “frivolous” and made in “bad faith.” KUCB was unable to reach Ah-Siu for comment.

The public safety department has had high turnover in recent years, not uncommon in Alaska law enforcement agencies where recruitment can be challenging. And the police department is not alone — the city is struggling to fill posts across many departments, and 26 city positions remained unfilled as of Jan. 10, including a permanent city manager and a finance director.

Still, the city’s public safety department has been marked by high turnover for years. Unalaska spent more than two years on a nationwide search for a chief before hiring King, who previously spent 25 years with the Montgomery, Alabama police department before taking the job in Unalaska in 2020.

King was active in the Unalaska community and sat on the board of several nonprofit and community groups, including Unalaskans Against Sexual Assault & Family Violence.

The city of Unalaska says it has enlisted an outside investigator to conduct an independent review of the allegations. The investigator’s report will be presented to the Unalaska City Council in a closed session at an upcoming council meeting.

Clarification: An earlier version of this article said all of the suits were filed during Jay King's time as chief. KUCB wishes to clarify that while it is true the suits were filed during King's tenure, many of the events named in the suits predate his time with the department.

Theo Greenly reports from the Aleutians as a Report for America corps member. He got his start in public radio at KCRW in Santa Monica, California, and has produced radio stories and podcasts for stations around the country.
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