City, ACLU continue work on Public Safety Commission

The Nome Common Council will once again take up a final vote May 13 on a law setting up a community representative Public Safety Commission. The measure has been delayed over several meetings to allow more discussion on tweaking to get it right and come to a meeting of minds between advocates and the City’s administration.

“Getting it right” involves a solution to several sticking points between community advocates and the City’s administrative—notably a question of whether the city manager and police chief should serve as ex officio members in addition to nine other members.

“We need to work together rather than be them and us,” Acting City Manager John K. Handeland said. “Unless there is trust and mutual respect, the Commission is not going to work for anybody, regardless of how it is written. After talking to Brooks [Chandler, city attorney, Ed.], I prefer a team approach with efficiencies derived from representatives working with the staff.”

Ex officio means by virtue of one’s status or position.

“I do not support additional directives for he chief who works for the city manager,” Handeland said.

Councilman Jerald Brown and others saw the proposed commission as an advisory group more than an independent oversight committee.

“It feels important to have people there but to be able to go into executive session [without city manager and police chief],” Darlene Trigg said. “I believe the mistrust we have in the community, although we have a building relationship with the Council, building relationship with the chief of police, where we have not always had that. We have a longstanding history of something happening with our police department that has been significant and up to the point that people have not wanted to call the police,” Trigg said.

The new group, an advisory body to the Council, will aim to mitigate public concern about past performance of the Nome Police Dept. and whether it has adequately investigated reports of domestic violence and sex abuse, plus whether the City and NPD have responded to citizen complaints as regards performance issues.

In spring of last year, a coalition of Alaska Native women came forward to demand action on rape and domestic violence cases they said had been reported to the police, but had been ignored and not investigated. Several gave examples of persons they knew who had not seen action on their complaints. 

Review of court documents show that many complaints of such incidences in Nome show alcohol was involved, which complicates investigations.

Over all, sex abuse cases are not easy to process, District Attorney John Earthman said Monday.

There are two basic types of sex abuse cases, he said.

“The first is without consent. Without consent means the victim was coerced or forced, some type of threat or injury, or some type of harm or threat of harm—that’s why it happens. It is pretty specific in the statute. It is the most serious we have.

“The other type is committed on someone sleeping or passed out,” Earthman continued. “The challenges we have are sex crimes don’t tend to happen out on the street. They tend to happen where there aren’t any type of witnesses. So the challenge is what you’re trying to do is recreate what happened to charge one of those two types of crimes.

“People obviously should report these kinds of things. The challenge is to figure out if we can prove beyond a reasonable doubt that this was a forced encounter or if this was with someone who was passed out,” Earthman said.

“The requirement is that when someone is passed out, we have to prove to the jury that the assailant knew the other person was passed out. That’s a legal requirement we have to prove.”

Alcohol adds challenges to processing cases.

“Frequently these referrals come to us from a situation where they don’t have a good recollection of what happened at the time, so we have to come up with different things to come up with proof that shows that, again, the person forced them, or at that time the person engaged in misconduct when they knew the other person was passed out.”

The DA’s office has to have the elements to prove the cases.

 “So those two scenarios are not that easy to prove—trying to reconstruct those two circumstances,” Earthman said.

 “They are not simple elements to prove beyond reasonable doubt to 12 jurors told to hold every reasonable inference against the state,” Earthman said. “Some of the cases we work hardest on never go to court.”

“We’ve had some ugly sex cases go through here this year,” Earthman said. “When we can prove them, we charge them. We’re not trying to do anyone a disservice.”

Other factors complicate the relationship between community and law enforcement. Again, statistics kept by the department show an inordinate amount of policing time spent with issues concomitant with alcohol—domestic violence, driving under the influence, violation of release or probation conditions, assault, other disorderly conduct.

The Nome Police Dept. has faced an inability to keep officers long-term due to financial conditions—low recruitment pay, scarcity of available housing, location off the road system and salary competition from other municipalities. Currently, several officers commute to Nome from other cities on a two weeks on/two weeks off schedule.

A memo from NPD Chief Robert Estes said the NPD was editing files beginning with 2005, on Sex Abuse and Sex Abuse of Minors.

There are about 460 cases that fall into that time frame.

“We started with those cases that were still showing an “open” status in the computer system,” Estes said. “Currently we are conducting a 100 percent complete audit of SA First Degree and SA Second Degree cases. To date, we have internally completed [years] 2018, 2017, 2016 and 2015.”

“With the cases being audited, we have taken 76 cases to the District Attorney’s Office for review. The DAO declined prosecution on 57 of the cases. Of those 57, we have been able to write the final supplement and correctly assign disposition codes to five cases,” Estes reported. “Of the remaining 19 sexual assault cases, the DAO has requested continued investigative steps be taken.”

“What I saw was a lot of cases on which we had discussion [with the department in the past],” Earthman said. “I get calls 24/7, generally about what report they’ve just received, what we’re going to do, because a lot of times when these sex cases come up, you don't know how it’s going to unfold. Usually, you take the victim to the hospital for an exam. 

“At that time, the missing piece is what did the suspect have to say. We usually have a conversation about that and what investigative steps we are going to take. What I saw in a lot of these case, was cases about which I’ve had discussion. I don’t think there were too many I hadn’t heard something about, but with the new chief, it looked like cases he needed to just close out or needed to review, Earthman said.

During the current 2020 budget planning period the City administration has plans to increase the appropriation for the public safety sector, according to acting City Manager Handeland. The increase puts additional hours of investigation into the department schedule, Handeland said, as well as increasing patrol officers and a capacity to review and process back cases and keep up in a timely manner, Handeland said.  “We recognize a duty to review the old stuff, but we have new cases happening every day. Then we have to take them to the Dept. of Law so they can decide to move forward or decline prosecution.”

Handeland also announced that he has retained Sharon Sparks to become a victim follow up person and to help people file cases as she has work experience in the advocacy field, and would act as a liaison between the victims and the police department.

The Nome Nugget

PO Box 610
Nome, Alaska 99762

Phone: (907) 443-5235
Fax: (907) 443-5112

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