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Nome Citizens Seek Reform, Citing ‘Deficiencies in Public Safety’ for Alaska Natives

Concerned citizens of Nome present their proposed resolution to the City Council regarding justice for Alaska Native victims of sexual assault and other violent crimes. Photo Credit: Davis Hovey, KNOM (2018)
Concerned citizens of Nome present their proposed resolution to the City Council regarding justice for Alaska Native victims of sexual assault and other violent crimes. Photo Credit: Davis Hovey, KNOM (2018)

A group of citizens in Nome is calling for change in the handling of sexual assault cases — and the City Council says it’s listening.

The group has proposed a resolution, a version of which is on the agenda for tonight’s City Council meeting.

KNOM’s Zoe Grueskin has more:

At a work session last week (May 7), a group of citizens approached the Nome City Council with what it sees as shortcomings in the Nome Police Department’s response to sexual assault and violent crimes.

Lisa Ellanna was one of the presenters of the group’s resolution.

“We have a lot to be proud of, we do. This community is strong. But there are some deficiencies when it comes to public safety. We’re not here to point fingers; we’re here to try to make things work better. We’ve been trying for a while.”

Ellanna and the other authors of the resolution signed it simply as “Community Members of Nome.”

She said they began as a support group. Among friends, mostly women, it was a safe space to share their experiences. According to Ellanna, as they talked, they noticed similarities in their stories: not only in the violent crimes committed against them and loved ones, but also in what happened afterward, when they sought medical care and legal action.

She said many in the group felt they’d been asking questions — and not getting answers from the Nome Police Department, or NPD:

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

A central claim of the resolution was that Alaska Native victims do not receive equal treatment by the police. The document cited statistics on the prevalence of sexual violence against Alaska Native women, as well as common themes from the group’s conversations, less easily captured by numbers.

Before the reading of the resolution, Panganga Pungowiyi spoke about her lived experience of discrimination against Alaska Natives:

“We’re told what our value is every single day. We’re told where we are in the hierarchy in this town. And we know it because the people that we love are being hurt, and they’re dying, because they don’t feel valuable.”

The group’s resolution proposed a long list of changes to NPD policies and training. They included: a commitment to sending every rape kit to the state crime lab, hiring a special investigator to handle sexual assault cases, and requiring every officer to attend regionally-specific cultural orientation and trainings in racial equity and trauma-informed interview practices.

Senior councilman Anderson told the group, “we have our homework.”

That work was taken up by City Manager Tom Moran.

“If we need to respond differently, if we need to do some cultural sensitivity, if we have to increase our presence in some sort of circles, then we’re going to do everything we can to address that.”

Chief of Police John Papasodora could not attend the work session and could not be reached for comment, but according to Moran, he sat down with the Chief, the City Clerk, and the city attorney the next morning to take a look at the resolution.

Moran says the City is taking the issue seriously, although it likely won’t sign onto everything in the citizens’ resolution:

“I don’t think that the City Council needs to do a resolution saying that we need to protect the Native Alaskan members of our community under the Fourteenth Amendment the same way the non-Natives are protected. To say by the City Council mandate that the Police Department will do something they should already be doing is kind of a sticky subject.”

He notes there is some precedent for declarations from the Council that support a value or idea, rather than specific, actionable policy changes. But change is what was asked for, and Moran says some of it can happen immediately:

“We agree with some of their points. Some of their points are constructive, and they’re things that we know that we can address right away.”

Moran wants to show that the City is listening. At tonight’s regular meeting, the City Council will take up its own resolution.

It contains little policy — mostly, it affirms the Council’s commitment to providing “a safe and inclusive community,” and it declares support for both Alaska Native victims and NPD. This is just the start of the conversation. Moran says the City plans to deliver a “full response” by June 7th.

Image at top: a group of Nome citizens presents its proposed resolution to the City Council regarding justice for Alaska Native victims of sexual assault and other violent crimes. Photo Credit: Davis Hovey, KNOM (2018).

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