Advisory panel encourages accreditation for Nome police
By Julia Lerner
The Nome Police Department may soon begin the process of earning its official accreditation following a motion from the Public Safety Advisory Commission on Monday.
Accreditation is awarded to law enforcement agencies, including police departments, state troopers and sheriff’s offices, following rigorous training and commitment to public safety. Departments have to meet meticulous standards and demonstrate strict adherence to rules and policy to earn their accreditation.
The Nome Public Safety Advisory Commission met Monday for their first meeting since March and discussed several options for accreditation, including commitment to a specific accrediting program and what it would mean for NPD and the city.
Greg Russell, a retired Alaska State Trooper and former Kotzebue Chief of Police, spoke with the commissioners during the meeting about several program options, including the CALEA program from the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies and the Oregon Accreditation Alliance.
Russell was the main auditor involved in a recent NPD audit, conducted by Russell Consulting, LLC. The results of the audit were released in February of this year.
“I think everyone agrees that accreditation is needed,” Nome City Manager Glenn Steckman said during the meeting. “We’re trying to create a change in culture.”
The CALEA accreditation program is rigorous, Russell explained, and may have requirements not applicable to the Nome Police Department, such as requiring infrastructure upgrades and building codes not feasible in Nome. Accreditation, though, can lead to significant savings for the City and a reduction in lawsuits. The city’s insurance provider, the Alaska Municipal League Joint Insurance Association, will give the police agency a five percent reduction on its insurance premiums as an incentive for accreditation as well.
The motion to start pursuing accreditation with the Oregon Alliance Standard carried with full support from the six commissioners present. They hope the accreditation process, which can take more than a year, will begin this fiscal year.
Following discussion of the accreditation process, commissioners discussed the NPD sexual assault policy, covering procedures officers need to follow during sexual assault investigations, as well as the child abuse policy.
NPD Chief Michael Heintzelman shared statistics with commissioners comparing service calls in 2020 and 2021. Calls for police service fell more than 30 percent in 2021, with 6,848 total calls between January 1 and June 7 in 2020, and only 4,435 during the same period this year. Additionally, calls related to sexual assault in that time frame fell from 50 in 2020 to 23 this year.
Heintzelman explained that NPD has been struggling with maintaining enough personnel and staff despite several incentives, including a $10,000 signing bonus for officers and future housing support.
“It is a national issue of finding police officers right now,” Steckman explained. Heintzelman hopes to hire more “Nome grown” officers and staff, stressing the importance of knowing and understanding the community officers are policing.
NPD is trying to address officer shortages with the two-on, two-off program, meaning officers work in Nome for two weeks, and then have two weeks off, though that’s not the ideal setup.
“The goal is to get people here full time,” Steckman said.
Commissioners also discussed membership on the commission and the struggle to meet city-mandated quorum requirements. The commission plans to swear in a new commissioner, Briday Green, who was nominated by Nome Mayor John Handeland during the May 27 Common Council meeting and confirmed by the Council. Green was not present at Monday’s session, but the commission hopes to formally swear her in before the next scheduled committee meeting.
The group also approved a motion to remove Ivory Okleasik from the commission for “chronic absence” from scheduled meetings. She was not present at the session and will no longer serve on the PSAC. “If we have a commission member not coming on a regular basis, we need to address that,” Commissioner Carol Piscoya explained. “So we can get a replacement. This program is really important to us, and important to Nome.”
When established, membership of the PSAC was designed to “reflect the cultural, racial and gender makeup of the community,” according to establishing documents. Meeting those standards is a challenge for the committee, who discussed changing the requirements for committee makeup in order to get wider participation.
During commissioner comment, several commissioners expressed support for the productive meeting.
“It’s awesome to get to do something and make quorum,” Commissioner Justin Noffsker said. “It was really discouraging for a while” to not be able to meet.
“I’m excited that we’re doing something,” Piscoya said. “It’s good to see our numbers increasing.”
The Public Safety Advisory Commission will meet again on August 2 at 6 p.m.