Kawerak and City jointly request help from state and federal agencies to reform NPD
The City of Nome and Kawerak Inc. last week sent a letter to the FBI, the Governor, state legislators as well as the Alaska federal delegation, requesting assistance to “ensure justice for all victims of sexual assault and other violent crimes in the Bering Strait region.”
The letter comes after a period of municipal turmoil stemming from allegations that the Nome Police Department has failed to adequately investigate sexual assaults and violent crimes over the last few years. A group of women have repeatedly confronted the Nome Common Council and urged the city administration to act on their requests for a special sexual assault investigator, an ethics review of NPD protocol and an investigator to investigate NPD’s handling of sexual assault reports.
In September a new chief of police took the helm at NPD and former City Manager Tom Moran also submitted his resignation. In the interim, former mayor John Handeland was appointed to the acting city manager position. These winds of change —manifested in new city leadership, including new members on the Nome Common Council — bring about new methods of going forward.
During last week’s Kawerak Regional Conference panel discussion on “Resources for survivors of sexual assault”, John Handeland and Kawerak CEO and President Melanie Bahnke announced that both entities have joined forces to draft a letter asking for assistance. “Melanie and the mayor have signed a joint letter and sent it to everybody that’s anybody, including federal and state and our Alaska delegation, asking them to come up here and take a look at if there are things that haven’t been handled right — not to put blame on anybody, but to figure out how do we fix the process moving forward,” Handeland said. “So we may have some DoJ people, we may have some FBI people coming up here and we also asked state troopers, potentially, to provide some assistance.”
The letter requests that the Dept. of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigation, “exercise its authority and responsibilities […] to determine if there have been civil rights violations by the NPD in regards to sexual assault and violent crime investigations and to provide guidance to the new leadership at NPD to assist leadership to identify and implement best practices for law enforcement agencies when it comes to appropriate response to sexual assault and violent crime reports.”
The letter asks state legislators to enact stiffer penalties and close loopholes on sex crimes, citing a recent case in which it was determined that masturbating and ejaculating on a person without consent was not considered a crime. Justin Schneider, the Anchorage man who committed the deed, was set free, to the outrage of many.
The letter also asks to provide additional personnel to the Nome District Attorney’s office, where both prosecutors bear the highest caseload per attorney in the state, according to the letter.
It asks to expedite filling three vacant State Trooper positions in the Nome post – which currently has only four troopers for the entire Bering Strait region — and requests a trooper specifically assigned to handle sexual abuse investigations.
Other requests include that the state prioritizes to fill four Office of Children’s Services caseworker vacancies – currently two caseworkers deal with over 315 open cases. And finally the letter asks the Federal Government and State of Alaska to “provide any other resources that the City of Nome might benefit from to strengthen NPD and to assist the Department in regaining the confidence of the general public.”
As background the letter offered a time line of grievances: in April 2018, the state’s office of special prosecutions filed charges against a NPD Community Services Officer for punching a woman in the head while on duty. He resigned but was rehired temporarily in August by then-Chief John Papasodora and then-City Manager Tom Moran as a dispatcher and was terminated again under public pressure.
In May, a group of Alaska Native women, sexual assault survivors, gave public comment at Common Council meetings, voicing their concern about the lack of sexual assault investigations. According to the letter, Chief Papasodora acknowledged that 126 rape kits, some dating back to 2005, have not been sent out to the state’s crime lab until recently.
In June, a Nome woman who was employed at NPD as a dispatcher, came forward with the information that she was raped, she reported the rape to a NPD Lieutenant and her case remained uninvestigated. The Lieutenant was demoted to the rank Sergeant.
NPD Chief John Papasodora retired and a new chief reported to work on Sept. 15.
In September City Manager Tom Moran tendered his 30-day notice. At another Common Council meeting, a Nome woman revealed that Moran had texted her improperly using a different name and asked her to come to City Hall in the middle of the night. The council relieved him of his contract three days before it was to expire.
In September, another woman alleged on a social media that she was raped and her case was never investigated.
Although not mentioned, Nome police was still needing to regain trust after the 2003 murder of Sonya Ivanoff, who was shot by a Nome police officer on duty. The officer was convicted and sentenced to serve a 99-year sentence in jail.
The Kawerak board of directors passed a resolution in October that aims to seek justice for victims of sexual assault and violent crimes. Part of the resolution reads “it is apparent that Nome Police Department protocol, processes and procedures to carry out its responsibilities under the law regarding investigating sexual assault and violent crimes need to be overhauled” and that the new chief as well as the City are open to an investigation of NPD by a neutral third party. The resolution calls upon the Dept. of Justice, FBI, to exercise its authority under a certain law “which makes it unlawful for state or local law enforcement agencies to allow officers to engage in a pattern of conduct that deprives a person’s rights protected by the Constitution or U.S, laws.”
The letter was addressed to State Representative Neal Foster and Senator Donny Olson, to the office of Governor Bill Walker, US Attorney Bryan Schroder and FBI Special Agent in Charge Jeffery Peterson and cc’d to U.S. Senators Lisa Murkowski, Dan Sullivan and Congressman Don Young.
Bahnke said that Kawerak officials met last week with Dan Sullivan and Lt. Governor Val Davidson. “We discussed in length for an hour our request and got a commitment from our senator to put in a call and use his clout to the FBI, to let the FBI know that they should take this seriously,” Bahnke said. She added that the Senator was quite confused, though. “He kept saying ‘Are you sure that the City is on board with this? You talked to the chief, right? You didn’t just go and get Mayor Beneville’s signature,” Bahnke said. “I said, no, believe it or not, this is something that the City has signed on to, they want to be investigated in terms of are there things that they could be doing better? So, the Senator was really surprised.”
John Handeland, ever optimistic, sees the silver lining in this rough time for all involved. “My feeling is: Although Nome is in the limelight here for the last little bit, there were a couple of high profile cases and certainly we want those addressed, but Nome is a good place,” he said. “I hope you all feel safe to come and visit us and we need to take more care that everybody feels that way and has the trust in all of us here to deliver the services that you need, respond to your concerns and to make it a good place for all of us to live. While these high profile cases are going on, I don’t think Nome is any worse off than some other community around. There are others that need to step up their actions as well. We heard about these and I read the statistics of what’s going on in Anchorage and the murders and rapes and run-overs that are happening there.
“There are bad things happening everywhere. It takes all of us as a community to get together and advocate for change and not just in this area, but in all areas of public safety and let’s do it as a team and a region together.”
Editor's Note: This version of the story reflects a correction made from the printed version. In the printed story, the Anchorage man referred to is called Justin Schneider, not Justin Stein.