Petersburg Chief of Police James Kerr filed a suit against the Borough of Petersburg in March of 2022 for allegedly defaming him and presenting him in a false light. That case was just scheduled for a jury trial in the Juneau Superior Court to take place next spring. Now, the Borough has refiled the case as a civil rights suit in the district federal court. 

Chief Kerr addressed the Borough Assembly in November of 2021 to criticize the COVID-19 mask mandate in place at that time. He said carrying out the mandate could hurt the morale of local law enforcement officers. Kerr says he did it as a private citizen — though the Borough disagrees, considering his status as a high ranking public official commenting on a matter of public concern as a matter of law. 

Assembly members Dave Kensinger and Jeff Meucci complained to the Borough about the views Kerr expressed at the meeting. Kerr alleges he received “constant retaliation” from the Borough for his statements against masking enforcement.

In March of 2022, Kerr made a complaint, and submitted a document titled “Timeline/Overview of events,” to Debra Thompson, the Borough Clerk. The Borough processed that document as a harassment complaint.  

The Borough brought in the law firm Clayton and Diemer LLC to provide legal counsel on whether Chief Kerr’s speech was protected by the First Amendment when he objected to police enforcement of the mask mandate before the assembly. The firm also evaluated whether the conduct of Assembly Members Meucci and Kensinger constituted harassment. Diemer handed over his confidential legal opinion to Borough Manager Steve Giesbrecht, who is Chief Kerr’s supervisor. 

And then KFSK got ahold of that document through a public records request. It said no unlawful harassment or bullying took place, and it included a redacted copy of Chief Kerr’s “Timeline” document.

Kerr’s original case against the Borough and Steve Giesbrecht was for allegedly defaming him and portraying him in a false light in that statement. He alleges that he never made a harassment complaint, that the independent investigation wasn’t really independent, and that the Borough’s actions made him look like somebody who makes baseless claims of harassment.

Kerr demanded a jury trial on all claims in the case in a request filed last December. That case was just scheduled for a jury trial in the Juneau Superior Court beginning next Spring — but then it was withdrawn from the state superior court in Juneau and moved to the district federal court about a month later, on August 24th. The nature of the suit was also changed to civil rights: other. Chief Judge Sharon Gleason will preside over the case in the U.S. District Court for the District of Alaska in Anchorage. 

Editor’s Note: This story has been corrected to reflect the fact that the Petersburg Borough refiled the suit in federal court, and not Chief Kerr.