Commission interviews candidates for chief of police job
The Nome Public Safety Advisory Commission met Saturday to interview the five semi-finalists for the City of Nome’s chief of police position. Four of the candidates were interviewed via video conference and one appeared in person. Ten candidates applied for the job and the commission selected five of those for video interviews. Each of the six members of the commission present held a prepared list of 18 questions and with a candidate on the video screen they’d each ask one question, rotating around the table until all 18 questions were asked. Each candidate was interviewed for 50 minutes.
The Public Safety Advisory Commission was formed last year to assist the city and the police department in providing better safety services to Nome citizens. Public trust in the city and the police has eroded as sexual assaults and other violent crimes were not adequately investigated.
Commission members present for the interviews were chairman Irvin Barnes, Lisa Ellanna, Traci McGarry, Andy Miller, Jr., Carol Piscoya and Mo Koezuna. Three members were absent. City manager Glenn Steckman presided over the interview process and City Clerk Bryant Hammond and Executive Assistant Cheryl Thompson facilitated the interview process.
The City has had an interim police chief since Bob Estes resigned last October after serving in the position for just a year. The police department has been in turmoil in part due to a perception of unequal treatment by Alaska Natives, particularly in the investigation of sexual assault cases. Last week, the City of Nome was sued by the ACLU on behalf of a former police dispatcher whose charges of rape were ignored by NPD.
The first candidate to appear on the big screen in the Northwest Campus conference room was Jennifer Shockley, a veteran of 19 years with the Unalaska Police Department. She was for one year the acting chief for the Aleutian city. Now she is working as a mentor to the Liberian National Police and thus video conferenced from that West Africa country. She stated she wants to return to Alaska after a year in Liberia working in a program administered by the U.S. State Department. “I think I’m at the pinnacle of my career in law enforcement,” she said. Asked what she knows about Nome’s troubled department she replied she knows only what she’s read in the newspapers. As a female officer in Unalaska she responded to most of the city’s sexual assault cases. Asked about dealing with a diverse population she pointed out that Unalaska is very diverse. “Most of my adult career has been spent working in really diverse groups,” she said. “It’s important to understand there are different priorities in different cultures.” Asked about how to recruit and retain officers for the force she answered, “The police department needs to be valued by the community if they want to keep people.” She also said there should be Native police officers. The way to do that is to get kids interested in serving their community, a long-term approach. When asked if she had any questions for the committee she asked what the relationship was between them and the police chief.
The next candidate, Andrew Cottle, appeared from Kuwait, where he works for Triple Canopy, the company formerly called Blackwater, in a training position. Cottle has been in Kuwait for 20 months and is a 20-year veteran of the Anchorage Police Department. His family moved to Alaska in 1898 and his grandfather was born in Nome in the early 1900s. With the Anchorage police he worked as a detective in the special victims unit, sometimes investigating fellow APD officers. Asked why he’d like to be the chief in Nome he replied, “To come and see a part of Alaska I haven’t seen and make a difference.” He believes Nome needs a chief with a background as a sexual assault investigator, which he has. He says that in a small force such as Nome’s the chief is a working chief, out and about and not just behind a desk.
Joel Fitzgerald Sr., PhD came up on the screen next for his interview. Dr. Fitzgerald has an impressive resume and presented himself very well in the interview. He is the former Chief of Police in Fort Worth, Texas, a city of 875,000 people. He reported right off that he’s had success in driving crime down in every town where he’s been the chief. He’s attracted to the job in Nome because it’s a smaller community and he prefers working with smaller groups of people. “I think my niche is in a smaller agency,” he said. “I’m ready to be somewhere where I can be for a long period of time.” He said he’d like a smaller city with more visibility. “I’d like to be part of the community, be seen, be visible. It will be a difficult position but I believe it will also be fulfilling.” He was asked how to engage the department with the public. “Police are the community and the community are the police,” he said. “You have to create opportunities for citizens to interact with you.” He was asked about dealing with the problems between the Native community and the police department and replied, “There has to be an appreciation for things that have happened in the past.” Asked about attracting qualified candidates for jobs on the Nome police force he said “You should have residents in the city who want to become police officers.”
The fourth candidate up for the interview was working a shift and appeared while in his patrol car, a testament to the wonder of video conference technology. John Hartman is an officer with the Scott County, Indiana Sheriff’s Office. He previously applied for a position with the City of Nome as EMS director. He withdrew his application because the city was at the time between city managers and there was confusion. Hartman has a wide list of qualifications as a law enforcement officer as well as an EMT and firefighter. He was a railroad police officer also. “People all over the nation are having problems with the police department,” he said. “People don’t want to be police anymore. But there has to be police. We’re a necessary evil.” Asked about his greatest strength, he said “I’m a people person and I’ve got good communication skills. There are officers out there that don’t have those skills. You’ve got to be able to talk to people.” He was asked how familiar he is with the colonization of Alaska Natives and what he could do to improve the police department’s relationship with the Native community in Nome. “We have to have a good relationship with their elders,” he replied. He was asked about the force dealing with sexual assault. “I will tell you it’s very important to have a female officer on the force,” he said. “Sometimes a victim simply does not want to talk to a man.” To the question about recruiting and retaining good officers he commented that it looks like Nome has had some people who’ve slipped through the cracks. He stressed the importance of psychological tests and knowing a potential recruits background. “Make sure these people are willing to come to the Nome Police Department for the right reasons,” he said. “I think it’s important to have community members who are members of the department.”
The fifth candidate for the chief of police position was able to appear in person because he is Acting Police Chief Mike Heintzelman. “I have a big advantage over the other candidates I’m sure,” he began. “I love the community and know the police department faces many challenges. But I’ve been here six months so I know what I’m getting into.” When asked about his best asset he replied that it was seeing what an officer has and putting that individual in the best spot. He reports that every one of the 90 sexual assault cases from 2019 has been investigated. The plan is to hire investigators, as there are none on the force, who will go to work on the cold cases. ”My interpersonal skills are the best. I like working with people and I like solving problems,” Heintzelman said. When asked about his familiarity with the local Native culture he said when he first came to Nome he went to the library and checked out a bunch of books, which could tell him what he wanted to know. “The sins of the past cannot be ignored,” he said. “They must be confronted. If you ignore the sins of the past, you’re doomed to repeat them,” he said. Speaking of the Nome Police Department, he said “A lot of officers are not actively patrolling. They want to hang around headquarters and wait for a call.” On attracting good applicants he said, ”I know that it’s difficult to get people interested in Nome. I like to make sure the officers become part of the community.”
After a short break the commission went into executive session to discuss the five candidates with the city manager.
Nome City Manager Glenn Steckman announced to the Nome Common Council Monday that two of the candidates for chief of police will be coming to Nome after Iditarod for face-to-face interviews. The third candidate still in the running is already here: He is acting chief Mike Heintzelman. Jennifer Shockley and Dr. Joel Fitzgerald will make the trip. Fitzgerald lives in Fort Worth, Texas. Shockley will travel to Nome from Liberia.