City to create public safety advisory panel
In a work session following last Monday’s Nome Common Council meeting, a roomful of concerned citizens showed up to provide input to the question whether or not Nome should have a public advisory panel to assist the City and the Nome Police Department to deliver better safety services to the public. After a long discussion the consensus between council members and the public was: Yes, let’s do this, get a panel started. Instead of planning for yet another marathon meeting, the Council and Mayor Richard Beneville committed that the next meeting would include a facilitator, who would focus participants on defining the structure and the purpose of the yet unnamed committee or commission that would serve as an advisory body to the City in regards to public safety.
“As the old adage goes, every journey starts with a small step,” Beneville said. “I think we’re on step three.”
The urgency to form such an advisory body started when a group of women began confronting the Nome Common Council several months ago with assertions that sexual assault and violent crimes were not properly investigated by Nome police. Public trust in the police department and in city management had been eroded. Former City Manager Tom Moran hired a new police chief, as former chief John Papasodora went into planned retirement. Nome-grown John Handeland has been appointed to be acting city manager, after the Council fired Moran three days prior to his official resignation date in October. With new leadership in place, changes are imminent.
At the Monday meeting,arguments for forming an advisory body were made. Nicole Frank commented that the continued pressure has led to this moment where people demand changes. “People just don’t trust the process anymore,” Frank said.
Justin Noffsker wanted to see something institutionalized that is more permanent than individuals and that would help the council, NPD and the citizens in the long run. Noffsker said a panel would be functioning as a maintenance tool to prevent the unaddressed complaints that the city was facing. He said chiefs come and go, policies come and go, “But the public has a right to have input in how these things work,” he said. And let’s not forget, he said,“Police are public servants.”
Councilwoman Jennifer Reader said she researched what other communities do and came across a program run by the City of Columbus, Ohio: They have a commission of 17 people from different backgrounds,which evaluates department policies and procedures.
Lisa Ellanna then addressed the council and reminded them that she had brought a manual to the council from a national recognized group on advisory councils, which can be used in a mix and match approach to design an advisory panel that Nome can agree on.
Paul Kosto stepped to the podium and pointed out that he’s hearing a lot of discussion going round-and-around but no goal setting. “What are the goals? Is it victims rights? Police oversight? Is it going to be a regulatory body? Or something like the LEPC? At some point we need to be drawing up boxes and start bringing people into those boxes. We’re spinning the wheels,” Kosto said.
John Handeland held up a notepad, showing a diagram with boxes. “I think for we need a group to advise, but for now the council should be hearing the input,” Handeland said.
“I respectfully disagree,” said Ellanna. “People, were very afraid to come here. They felt intimidated to come to the City Council, it’s a very public place to air some very damaging, very, very painful stuff. This is not the appropriate place to hear these things,” she said.
She made the case for a complementary committee to the council that would function in privacy, outside the public eye. The panel then would examine whether those particular incidents arose out of police misconduct, or could be countered with policy changes.This could be a complimentary committee to the council.
“This would remove the intimidation that people feel coming into this very public space,” she said. “Until recently this was a circle of white men,” she pointed out. “That is very intimidating to me as an Alaska Native woman. I’m not going to share traumatic things that have happened to me with a circle of white men. That’s just a fact. I think we have an opportunity to create an intermediary body to hear those very personal accounts.” She said it would work in an advisory capacity to make possible policy review suggestions or recommendations for examination of possible misconduct. “The point is to remove the level of intimidation and the relationship is strained, very strained that the public has with our public safety,” Ellanna said.
Discussion then touched on the reluctance of police chiefs to have lay people as an oversight committee. Councilman Doug Johnson pointed out that oversight is institutionalized as the city manager has oversight powers over NPD Chief. Keith Morrison got up and vented his frustration that things don’t progress despite the effort of the group that has brought solutions, suggestions, leads and alternatives to the table. “It seems we’re always under the clock, always rushing. We have to create other spaces to have different conversations,” he said. Councilmember Brown bristled at the suggestion that the council is not acting. “This process has been going a lot slower than I imagined,” Brown said. He said he is in full agreement to form a committee modeled after the planning commission. Mark Johnson offered that he felt frustrated that people came to the council, “and trusted us to do something and we passed it on to management at the time and it was not taken care of.”
In the end, consensus was to form a panel and to find a facilitator to usher all involved through the process of its creation, purpose and structure. Handeland is to collect a list of suggestions to pick the best suited facilitator for the task.
Beneville said the next step should be a meeting in the near future with the facilitator, council members and the public.
The meeting is to be publicly announced.