After mishandled investigations, advocates cautious as Nome police try rebuilding trust

A police officer stnds in front of a building
An NPD Officer in front of the Public Safety Building in Nome. (Jenna Kunze/KMOM)

Under new leadership, the Nome Police Department said they’re changing their practices in response to calls for reform from a local advocacy group, after mishandling sexual assault investigations in the past.

Survivors, advocates, and community members say the department is headed in the right direction but has a long way to go to repair broken trust, especially among Alaska Natives.

RELATED: Read all the parts of KNOM’s series on sexual assault investigations here.

Cold Cases in Nome

Over two years ago, Nome police went through their records and found they had 460 “cold case” sexual assaults dating back to 2005.

They re-opened the audited cases. As December of 2020 drew to a close, Nome Police Investigator Scott Weaver addressed the Nome City Council on his findings.

“There were a good amount of cases that had been investigated by police officers that were here at the time, and simply, the case just needed to be put together and sent over to the district attorney’s office,” Weaver said.

Nome Police Investigator Scott Weaver. (Emily Hofstaedter/KNOM)

That means NPD failed to finish the process of gathering and sending the evidence the District Attorney needed to make decisions about whether to charge an assailant.

RELATED: In Nome, few sexual assault crimes result in prosecutions

Weaver told the city almost all 460 cases being audited have been reviewed.

“Some cases just needed to be classified appropriately,” he said. “But there were many cases that needed work.”

Some of that work includes additional interviews and DNA evidence.

In order to get closure and justice for those survivors, Weaver had to locate people who moved out of state, and in many instances, had to re-open wounds that were nearly a decade old. 

“Fifteen years ago, they may have had an injustice here. There may have been the police officer here, or somebody that was working here, that didn’t do what maybe they should have done, or followed all the steps. But did they want to start that over now?” he said. “Because some (survivors) have (been) scarred from that, or put a band-aid on it, and they don’t want to talk about it. And that’s understandable.”

RELATED: Without justice in Nome, women wrestle with trauma and healing after sexual assault

As of December, Weaver, along with the Nome District Attorney and others in the police department, had identified 29 cases from the audit that could move on for potential prosecution, pending DNA evidence and more interviews.

That sexual assault case audit has been part of a big effort by the police and City of Nome to rebuild trust between law enforcement and the rest of the community over the last couple years.

But how did Nome get to the point where so many sexual assault cases needed to be potentially reinvestigated?

The answer goes back to before 2018.

Bringing the Problems to Light

Lisa Ellanna is a Nome community member whose kitchen table became a safe space for women, and sometimes men, to eat dinner and talk.

The group soon realized many of them had a shared experience: They were reporting their sexual assaults to the Nome police, and then would hear nothing about the investigation.

Woman with glasses and headband looking
Resident, Lisa Ellanna, gazing towards the distant mountains in Nome. (Brisa Alarcon/KNOM)

“It turned into a situation of ‘Wait a second, if this is happening to all of our cases, it’s probably happening to everybody’s cases, and what do we do about it?’” Ellana said. “You know, this is unacceptable. This won’t do.”

Over the years, Ellanna said they worked with other groups to create change for sexual assault survivors.

RELATED: Change the law to make prosecution for rape more possible in Nome and across Alaska, experts say

“Over the course of between 2015 and 2018, there was meeting after meeting after meeting, people coming together to support each other initially, and then turning into this advocacy kind of movement,” Ellanna said.

“We came to kind of an understanding of what would make things better. And through the process of working with the different agencies, and trying to push for changes to procedure and policy, and not making any headway… We decided to come forward in the form of a public complaint.”

In May of 2018, a group of mostly Alaska Native women, including Ellanna, introduced their own resolution on sexual assault to the Nome City Council. It alleged local police were not forwarding evidence for prosecution.

Ellanna told the council at the time that survivors would go to the police department and get no help: They would be turned away from the police with no answers about their sexual assault. Some didn’t know if an investigation was even taking place.

“That was really frustrating for us. For crimes that are so violent and demeaning and dehumanizing — sexual assault pulls, just pulls at you.”

Over the next few months, the council heard more concerns about uninvestigated sexual assaults. Then they learned the department had re-hired a community service officer in the summer of 2018, one month after he pleaded guilty to assaulting an Alaska Native woman in his care.

Soon, more women began to go public in statewide media outlets with stories of their own uninvestigated sexual assaults. One of then was a former NPD dispatcher, Clarice Bun Hardy, who said her own colleagues didn’t investigate her rape after she reported it. After reporting, she began to notice patterns among some of the Nome officers, particularly Nick Harvey.

“The victims would call in and ask to speak to him,” Hardy said. “But he would avoid those kind of phone calls… avoid it, and he would tell me, ‘Just tell them, I’m still working on it.’ You know, and then after a few months of him doing that, I’m like, seeing it with my own eyes — you’re not doing anything to investigate these cases of these people who are faithfully calling every day.”

Nome residents and others came forward with their own allegations of policy violations and potentially criminal behavior from other officers.

Kawerak, the local tribal consortium, joined the City of Nome in asking the FBI and Department of Justice to investigate potential civil rights violations by the Nome police.

“You should be seeking an audit of your own police force,” said Kawerak’s CEO and President Melanie Bahnke. “If you’re being presented with information that your officers did not follow through on investigations, you should try to clean house here, hold yourselves accountable. Let’s jointly call for this investigation because whether you join in this request with us or not, it’s going out,”

As all of the issues came to a head in September 2018. Nome Police Chief John Papasadora quietly retired, and a new chief from Virginia took over.

Defense Against Mishandlings

When Chief Robert Estes arrived in Nome, public trust in the police department was fractured. Part of Estes’ goal was to audit hundreds of sexual assault cases and look at every call for a sexual assault that came in. 

Estes declined to be interviewed for this report. But in 2019, he and Investigator Jerry Kennon spoke with the Associated Press and KNOM about their findings. Kennon explained plenty of the sexual assault cases were handled appropriately, but some had significant problems. 

“What I was finding in these is that there were just no narratives done to them at all, much less an investigation that was done… And some of these cases have really been bad, serious cases that just were never investigated,” said Kennon.

The Nome police blame inefficient policies, a lack of staffing including not enough experienced investigators, and high turnover as the reasons so many cases went uninvestigated.

“If an officer was working on a case, and he decided ‘I’m leaving, I’m gone, I had enough,’ well, if someone didn’t look into his assigned cases, that case just went cold,” said Heintzelman.

Man standing at receptionist desk smiling at woman sitting at the desk.
Chief Mike Heintzelman of Nome Police Department.(Emily Hofstaedter/KNOM)

For a region with some of the country’s highest rates of sexual assault, the Nome police didn’t have regular full-time investigators in their department. Heintzelman said the average sexual assault case can take 30 hours or more to complete. And reporting calls were taken by regular patrol cops who weren’t specialized in investigations. 

“They would have to be responding to calls, doing their normal stuff that they would have to do, in addition to working on cases that were assigned, too,” Heintzelman said.

But others say the reason so many sexual assault cases were not handled properly is due to racial bias.

The Nome police were unable to provide KNOM with racial data on the survivors involved in the audited cases.

But in June 2019, the police chief wrote to the city manager in an email obtained by KNOM: “We have identified 51 historical cases with 100% native Alaskan women victims where there has been zero to poor follow-up at best.”

For the predominantly Alaska Native survivors and their loved ones, it was clear something was wrong when they would never hear about their cases. Advocates such as Darlene Trigg of Nome pushed to have a citizen’s oversight committee. After months of contentious city discussions and compromise, the Nome Public Safety Advisory Commission was finally formed and coded into city ordinance in 2019.

It’s a step in the right direction for accountability, Trigg said. 

“When something goes sideways, to look into it, and to check to see whether or not the police department acted within its own policies,” Trigg said.

Woman with purple hooded jacket looking into camera.
Nome resident, Darlene Trigg. (Brisa Alarcon/KNOM)

Trigg, Ellanna and fellow community activists suggested several additional concrete policies for the police to consider, including a requirement for officers to undergo trauma-informed sexual assault training and hiring an investigator to handle backlogged sexual assault cases.

Looking for Permanent Accountability

By now, some of those changes have happened.

The department hired Investigator Scott Weaver in the fall of 2020 to deal full-time with sexual assault cases. There’s also Sharon Sparks, a domestic violence coordinator currently employed by the Nome Police Department who helps survivors work through their cases — but the department can’t always keep that role filled.

As survivors demanded change for policing in Nome, it became clear many in city leadership didn’t know what had been brewing. And many of those leaders had been in charge of passing budgets and policies for years. 

“I’m embarrassed that I wasn’t aware of it prior to three or four years ago. It just, for whatever reason, wasn’t on my radar,” said Jerald Brown, a city councilmember.

Brown has sat on the City Council for about 15 years. Turnover is high in many aspects of Nome life including the police department, hospital, and the school — but not in city government. 

For example, current Mayor John Handeland previously served as Mayor, Interim City Manager, City Manager, and the head of the Nome Joint Utilities System, sometimes holding two of those roles at once. He said he gets involved more in the local level to help serve his home community, where he grew up and has lived for most of his life, but others say Handeland and others maintaining leadership positions for so long is part of the problem.

Within the Nome Police Department, current Chief Mike Heintzelman said there are now more efficient systems in place.

“We recognize there’s a shortfall,” Heintzelman said. “Some of the things weren’t done the best. There were some procedures that weren’t in place like checks and balances, but we’re in the right direction right now. Everything that is called in is something that is investigated fully.”

But another call from activists has been a review of the department’s operations and procedures manual. That’s from 2012, and still largely redacted to the public, including the sections on sexual assault investigations. When Greg Russell, an outside auditor, conducted a review of the department, he found most of the officers were not even familiar with the manual.

“It’s something that’s kind of like a ‘how-to’ so that an officer in the field would have a policy manual to reference that would say, ‘This is how my department wants it to be done.’ And since it is a ‘how-to’ manual, that’s why it’s so important to update it,” said Russell.

He found no indication that the Nome Police Department was regularly updating or reviewing its policy manual. 

Part of Russell’s job is to suggest improvements for police department management but also steer departments away from practices that could lead to lawsuits. He said that could include getting the department certified through a national policing accreditation. Right now, he explains, some places like Nome are largely dependent on good leadership. 

“Do you think an incompetent, bad, unprofessional, unethical police chief could take his department to a position of excellence? I think the obvious answer is no, they cannot” he said.

But locals who have watched administrations come and go want firm systems in place that guarantee the actions of old officers and police chiefs won’t happen again.

“I see positive changes happening. I really hope that we can institutionalize these changes so that it’s not beholden to the goodwill of who’s currently in a position of authority,” said Bahnke, the president of Kawerak.

Bahnke feels encouraged that the city regularly reaches out to the tribal consortium to discuss public safety issues, but she also said many of the changes have come through new leadership at the police department. 

Nome City Manager Glenn Steckman said the city is doing what it can with its resources to create lasting change.

In the last budget cycle, the City Council increased funding for more officers and supported officer housing in a community where housing is often scarce. But those additional officer positions still remain vacant, and the department still has police officers who haven’t committed to living in Nome full-time. Instead, they prefer to live elsewhere and fly in to work their two-week shifts. The exception is during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, when Steckman said many officers stayed in town to work for longer periods of time.

“But we’re trying to figure out how do we get stability in this department? That’s the challenge that we face: stability,” said Steckman.

But Steckman doesn’t want to dwell in the past.

“We have the history up here, these officers weren’t involved in it. And they are being heavily criticized, but they weren’t involved.”

Yet community members point out that the current officers and city leaders responsible for hiring them are part of an institution.

And until institutional change is complete, advocates and longtime Nome residents such as Darlene Trigg say a public apology — some acknowledgement of what has happened — is needed for the community to heal.

“Well, it’s necessary. That’s the truth,” Trigg said. “Some level of acknowledgement that harm has been done is probably not something that an attorney would want the city to do. However, there are people who are owed that in this community. Their families and their livelihoods and their ability to walk in our town, in a healthy, safe way is forever changed.”

For now, neither the City of Nome nor the police department have issued such an official statement.

Reporter Davis Hovey contributed to this report.