Community police commission on agenda at Council meeting
About 30 community members gathered at Trigg Tribal Hall Monday evening to discuss and describe a proposed public safety commission to promote communication and increased accountability between the public and the Nome Police Department.
The group made progress during the three-and-a-half-hour session; a tweaked version of the proposed ordinance setting up the citizen’s commission will go onto the Nome Common Council agenda for first reading at the next regular Council meeting Feb. 24.
The ordinance will be a template for setting up a nine-member body with the police chief and the city manager as additional ex officio members. Brooks Chandler, one of the City’s attorneys, who spent some days working with City administration to help lay the legal foundation for the commission, shepherded the group through a four-page proposed ordinance adding the commission to the City’s law book.
John K. Handeland, interim city manager and Mayor Richard Beneville also interacted with concerned citizens in a two-way give-and-take of ideas to build a commission that will restore citizens’ trust and comfort in seeking assistance and support from the public safety department.
Chandler started off by introducing himself and identifying his client: “I am not the attorney for Honorable Mayor Richard Beneville; I am not the attorney for John Handeland; I am not the attorney for the City Council,” he said.
“I am actually your attorney. You are all clients, including the people who are not here, because as city attorney, it is my job to represent the collective interests of all people of the community, so part of that job is for me to hear directly from you, although at the end, the way the democratic system works, is the ultimate decision maker is your elected representatives—the City Council.
“I take direction from the Council although they are not directly my client,” Chandler told the gathering. “On this specific project, there are two ways to do it: one is to start with a blank sheet of paper and draft a proposed ordinance. The other is to put something out there on the table, a vehicle for discussion.”
The gathering began to go down the second route with discussion of the proposed printed ordinance handed around by Handeland.
Councilmen Jerald Brown and Mark Johnson attended the work session; Councilwoman Meghan Topkok called in and attended on Handeland’s cellphone passed from speaker to speaker as the discussion progressed.
Should the ordinance be adopted when it goes before the Council, the commission likely will become the vehicle for public input in filling future police chief vacancies, as it contains language calling for the commission to participate in police chief candidate interviews, and making recommendations for hire to the city manager. However, the commission will not have hiring authority. After reviewing all applications and considering recommendations of the public safety commission, the manager will hire the police chief subject to confirmation by the Nome Common Council.
Along with enhancing communication, the language of the ordinance bears the stated purpose of encouraging the highest ethical standards in the public safety department, the Nome Police Department, and “to promote the delivery of quality law enforcement services with sensitivity, cultural understanding and racial equity.”
Language of the ordinance specifies the duties of the commission as obtaining information concerning the number of citizen complaints about public safety services received during a reporting period and the number of complaints sustained.
Lisa Ellanna, one of the community leaders of reform efforts, and several others asked that the commission receive statistics periodically on how many of certain cases had been reported and a check list showing the status—under investigation, passed to district attorney, charges filed, etc.—information by which the public might gauge improvement of services. The proposed ordinance recognized the public’s desire to detect trends in Nome as portrayed through police statistics, with emphasis on general information, without names or violation of privacy, regarding the number of domestic violence and sexual assault cases, status of sexual assault and domestic violence cases, including status of victim follow-up, the number of public inebriation calls, the number of drug and alcohol abuse calls and the number of felony investigations. Then the commission would advise the Council on programs to address the data-identified needs and recommend specific City action in response to demonstrated needs.
Chandler told the group that the power of the commission would be advisory to the Council, and that the commission would exist at the pleasure of the Council with members appointed by the mayor.
The police department would also submit reports to the commission regarding training sessions completed.
According to the ordinance, the public safety commission would annually provide recommendations to the Council to promote efficiency and quality of public safety services as well as comments on policies of the police department.
Participants in the discussion identified issues, such as confidentiality, that the proposed ordinance did not address.
If the Council votes the ordinance to second reading and final passage at next Monday’s meeting, the second reading and final passage can be delayed a month to allow amendments and enhancements at the Council’s March 25 meeting, before the final vote.
“Or if we want to make major changes, we can start the passage process over again,” Councilman Jerald Brown suggested. “My suggestion is to get this rolling.”
Questions remained concerning qualifications of commission members, the extent of the commission’s investigative powers and liability, and confidentiality concerning juvenile victims. Some favored waiting until the ordinance was polished before laying it on the Council’s table. However, there would be additional opportunity for more tweaking before the vote for final passage on March 25.
The meeting came after two-and-a-half months of nothing, Keith Morrison observed. “Now it feels like it is rushing forward,” he said.
The City had been responsive to concerns about the Nome Police Dept., Handeland said. The city manager had been changed, a new police chief had been hired. [Editor’s note: When the former police chief John Papasodora retired in Sept. 2018, his resignation was not officially tied to growing public discontent. Then-City Manager Tom Moran said in response to the Nugget’s request for the real reason for Papasodora’s resignation: “Chief Papasodora is honestly retiring because it’s the right time. His contract was written *nine* years ago with this end date, so it’s no crazy conspiracy.”]
The department was reviewing cases for status with emphasis on those involving rape, domestic violence and deaths. Records had been obtained from the state medical examiner to compare with NPD files.
“I want to say ‘thank you’ to our entire community for stepping forward to making our public safety better,” Ellanna said. “Thank you to the City Council for listening to the community. Thank you to the survivors [of sex abuse and domestic violence] for bringing this forward,” Ellanna concluded.