Council ponders creating public safety committee

A room full of Nome residents showed an interest in a work session Oct. 8 concerning the formation of a public safety committee to help iron out issues between the public and Nome Police Dept.
“It is great that citizens are interested and willing to participate to make Nome a better place,” John K. Handeland, acting city manager, said. He added that garnering input and constructive suggestions for improvement would be of benefit to us all and that details would need to be sorted out. 
“Public safety is a huge concern, and I think we need to look at the broad topic and issues, while others are suggesting a more focused approach on only police activity.  While that is a legitimate concern, things are being addressed presently, and we are working to rebuild the community’s trust,” Handeland said.
Jana Varrati took the podium early in the meeting. She suggested that rather than have a committee, newly hired Nome Police Chief Bob Estes should continue to meet with citizens on a regular basis to hear complaints and suggestions. As chief, Estes, after reviewing the NPD operations manual, files and issues, could report to the Council, Varrati suggested.
 If Chief Estes believes it is necessary to establish a citizens’ committee, he could ask the Council for it, she said. “I’m a believer in process. Changes, in my opinion, should follow process. That is, begin at the lowest bureaucratic level available.”
However, if a committee were needed, Varrati suggested it have a duration of three months rather than be a standing committee. The committee should publicize meetings, have written reports and have compensation and liability insurance for members, she continued.
Nome police have been under fire from citizens who say the police are not doing their jobs when it comes to investigating sex assaults and domestic violence. Residents at the work session before the Council meeting took the podium to vent these frustrations.
Niviaaluk Brandt felt the community needed a public safety committee as an ongoing standing committee, that it would help to have accountability for police officers “so women, children and some men can be safe in this town,” she said.
Several other speakers expressed that the public safety group should be a standing committee, as the port commission, planning commission and the Nome Joint Utility System board of directors.
Justin Noffsker asked the Council if they had seen the video on social media showing an officer smoking a joint.
“Officers under investigation should be put on administrative leave,” Noffsker said. “These guys do not need to be in the community arresting people for the same acts the police are committing,” he said. “Failure to act is being complicit in the act.”
The officer is out of state training to be a K-9 officer. The issue is being investigated, according to Handeland. Marijuana is legal in Alaska, but its use by police and correctional officers is forbidden by the Alaska Police Standards Council.
Councilman Jerald Brown said Monday that the Council is collecting information on the public safety committee, and seeing how such a panel is handled in other communities.
One citizen remarked that the City needs to do some soul searching, that there needs to be accountability for people with power.
Several people questioned why the NPD operation procedures manual supplied them had many parts redacted (blacked out). Handeland explained that the City modeled the OPM after a state manual that had been thus redacted. City of Nome had to maintain the same editing to obtain access to the Alaska State Troopers’ OPM. Sections had been reacted concerning use of force, canine operations, riots, child abuse, aircraft plans and certain investigations, for example.
“We plan to update the OPM and review the editing. Council will receive the OPM to review,” Handeland said.
Public safety was a large umbrella, Sarah Swartz told the Council, covering many things, risky old buildings, public buildings, fire and ambulance activities. “We don’t have a lot of oversight on public safety, not just the police,” Swartz said.
Lisa Ellanna had provided a guidebook for implementation of police oversight committees, Brown said. Bryant Hammond, city clerk, had forwarded the information to the Council. The 63-page book is a product of National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement. It can be downloaded by anyone for free from the Internet. The booklet contains special training for members concerning public records and open meetings, confidentiality, officers’ rights to privacy rights of the arrested individuals, and rights of sexual assault victims and domestic violence arrests, as examples given by Brown.

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