Bethel votes to hire investigator to review city’s handling of sexual assault cases

A wooden building with an SUV in front
Bethel residents have called into recent city council meetings expressing concern about the Bethel Police Department’s handling of Juanita Nick’s sexual assault case. (Photo courtesy of Bethel Police Department)

Bethel City Council has taken action in response to a Bethel woman’s protest regarding her sexual assault case.

On Tuesday, the council voted to hire an independent investigator to review the city’s response to reports of sexual assault.

The vote follows Bethel resident Juanita Nick report to police on Dec. 19 that she was sexually assaulted.

Nick said that Bethel police took more than seven hours to initially respond to her call, and that officers did not pick up her sexual assault kit until 34 days after it was administered.

On March 4, she publicly protested the police department’s inaction.

In the weeks that followed Nick’s protest, Bethel residents and city council members expressed concern regarding her case. But the city council did not take any action.

Juanita Nick (Photo by Katie Basile/KYUK)

Council member Mark Springer said that the city council has limited authority over the police department.

On Tuesday, the council directed the city administration to hire an independent investigator to evaluate the handling of sexual assault cases reported in Bethel.

The council has recommended the hire of Rachel Gernat, a former sex crimes prosecutor. Gernat has worked in Bethel and other communities around Alaska for almost 15 years and has served on the statewide sexual assault training team.

“I’m very well versed in helping law enforcement and other community partners write policies and procedures related to the investigation of sex assault cases, with an eye toward doing a proper investigation,” Gernat said.

Gernat said she’d look at the Bethel Police Department, but also other community partners involved in the response to sexual assault reports. Bethel’s Sexual Assault Response Team is composed of Bethel police, Alaska State Troopers, the district attorney, the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation, Tundra Women’s Coalition and the Children’s Advocacy Center.

At the end of her evaluation, Gernat said, she’d write a report to the city council, making recommendations on how the city could improve its processes. She’d also provide training for the community partners involved in sexual assault response.

Council member Conrad “CJ” McCormick made the motion to hire Gernat.

“This is the absolute best course of action,” McCormick said. “This is obviously a rampant problem that we need to address, and I think this is the first step that we can take to really evaluating what we can do to better the situation.”

The action came during a special meeting where, for the first time, Bethel police chief Richard Simmons spoke publicly in response to complaints about his department’s handling of Nick’s sexual assault case.

Simmons supported the city council’s decision to hire an independent investigator to review his department’s response to sexual assault reports. He said that aside from some delay, his department handled Nick’s case properly.

“I think ultimately what you’ll find is even with the delay in picking up the kit, the case itself is a solid case, and it’s exactly where it needs to be,” Simmons said.

Simmons said that over the past few weeks, the department has put several new measures in place to improve its handling of sexual assault cases. For example, he said, his officers now periodically call YKHC to check if there are any sexual assault kits that need to be picked up.

“We now have an automated process that we call over regardless of what we may or may not have over there. We call twice a week just to make sure, and then we’ll swoop in and get it if we have something,” Simmons said.

Simmons also addressed why his department can lag behind in investigations: Bethel has a shortage of police officers and an overflow of police calls. Delays are almost inevitable, he said.

“When we only have two officers on and nobody is doing follow-up on investigations because your investigators are taking care of 911 calls, then these investigations are going to drag out, sometimes for months,” Simmons said.

Simmons said that data from the FBI shows Bethel as being in the top 5% of cities in violent crimes reported per capita.

“According to our population, we have the right amount of officers, but according to our call volume, we’re one of the busiest cities in the State of Alaska,” Simmons said.

Springer said the council could add more police officer positions in the city budget. Its process to develop the next fiscal year’s budget will begin soon. Springer urged Bethel residents to call their council members if they want the city to dedicate more of its budget to policing.

Council member Alyssa Leary wasn’t completely convinced that adding more officers was the answer.

“I can’t fault Chief Simmons for pointing out that we may need additional staffing at the police department,” Leary said. “But I think what has been brought up also warrants a really deep look at the processes to make sure, you know, we’re not just adding more officers in, and then continuing to do some things that may not be beneficial to the public for public safety.”

The city’s administration is drafting a resolution to hire Gernat to review the city’s handling of sexual assault reports. The city council will consider that resolution in its April 13 regular meeting.