A new grant from the U.S. Department of Justice aims to fund more community-oriented policing in Nome. The new opportunity sparked an important and sensitive conversation at a city council meeting earlier this summer.
Police Chief Mike Heintzelman said he hopes to improve community relations and educate students about the role of police, as well as increase police training. Two of his officers, Austin Martino and Jonathan Jachim, recently completed four months of training at Alaska’s Public Safety Academy. As part of this strategy, he said he wants a new officer to be at least parttime at the schools.
Molly Kenick, the council’s youth representative and a student at Nome-Beltz High School, addressed some concerns. She said a handful of her peers have had negative interactions with police officers in the past. She felt the presence of an officer at school could impact learning – or worse, students’ behavioral problems could be interpreted as criminal.
Councilmember and attorney Meghan Siġvanna Topkok said she agreed with Kenick. She said police presence at schools is a way children, particularly from minority groups, can get caught up in the criminal justice system before graduation. As adults, many young offenders return to prison.
The chief listened. He said although the officer would be obligated to respond to crime if one occurred, the intended outcome is outreach and education.
“Their mission is to go there and keep the kids safe, and also provide them with a role model,” Heintzelman said.
It is not certain to what extent schools will be open this fall, due to the pandemic. Council members say they hope to continue the conversation with the school board.
Image at top: Speakers address a crowd outside Nome’s Public Safety Building during a recent march.