Nome police chief says audit of sexual assault cases on hold

The entrance to the Nome City Council chambers. (Photo by Emily Hofstaedter / KNOM)

At a city council meeting this week, Nome Police Chief Bob Estes said the department’s audit of old sexual assault cases will be suspended.

Two of the temporary investigators have left, he said.

“We don’t have the personnel to investigate it now. So, they’re stopped,” Estes said. “They’re going to be basically cold case(s) right now.”

The audit has already found that number of cases that the department forwarded to the district attorney should have included more police investigation. Last fall a number of women alleged local police did not properly investigate reports of sexual assault. Estes made the audit a priority.

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Estes also explained that the work stoppage includes the sexual assault kits sent back from the state crime lab that were determined to require additional DNA testing. With staffing so low, the department now has to focus its resources on current cases. Estes says they have handled 35 sexual assault cases since the beginning of 2019, 31 of those have been forwarded to the District Attorney and four were re-opened after police obtained additional information.

The chief gave the interim City Manager John Handeland a four-a-half-page report detailing the 460 cases the department has audited within the last year, but that was not distributed to the public or council on Monday as Handeland had not yet read it.

According to the Chief every shift should have two officers and a supervisor on shift; but right now, the department has only one officer at a time and the supervisors also respond to calls. Estes says the department is looking for grants to get more investigators, but he urges the Council to look for ways to lessen the stress on the police department and says that the state of public safety could continue to decline.  He also told the Council that the public is “suffering” and the Alaska Native community especially needs to be able to “step up and be empowered.”

“We’re here because we want to be here for the citizens of Nome,” he said. “It’s unsustainable, unsustainable. I’m asking you here, at what risk are you willing to accept for the community? That’s all I’m asking. I’m not willing to accept a risk.”

Councilmember Jerald Brown pointed out that the city has increased the budget for public safety significantly. The approved FY 20 budget for policing is nearly half a million dollars more than the original FY 19 budget. Estes suggests the City revisit some of its alcohol ordinances as many of their calls are alcohol-related.

Lastly, commissioners-elect from the public safety commission have already begun to address the Council with their concerns. Ivory Okleasik of Nome told the Council on Monday she hoped they would do more suicide-prevention work, and wanted to know how the voices of the Nome’s homeless population could be incorporated into the public safety discussion.

There is an executive session scheduled for Monday, when the Council is expected to discuss the potential settlement with the ACLU and former dispatcher, Clarice Hardy. They will also discuss the three city manager finalists as they search for a permanent one.