Chief Robert Estes joined the Nome Police Department amid a time when civilian distrust was high. Concerned citizens crowded City Council meetings with concerns and allegations that NPD wasn’t handling their cases properly, particularly cases of sexual assault. Some even brought forth allegations of professional misconduct against NPD officers themselves.
When Chief Estes was sworn in on September 15, 2018, he had only an idea of some of the challenges he would be facing.
“Honestly, there were some folks saying, ‘hey this is going on,’ but I did not have the big picture, no. But there are challenges with everybody. I’m not going to finger-point.”
And while he may be new to Nome and some of its current challenges, he is not new to policing or public safety.
Estes began volunteering in public service when he was sixteen and says he was inspired by his older brother, who was also a police officer. In fact, public service is a family affair. Chief Robert Estes, who often goes by ‘Bob,’ says both his son and daughter are professional firefighters down in the Lower 48.
Upon graduating high school, Estes took a job as a dispatcher and worked in multiple departments. Over the course of several years, Estes earned a degree in political science and a bachelor’s degree in Administrative Justice from Virginia Commonwealth University as part of the ROTC program.
In February, Chief Estes will retire as a lieutenant colonel from the National Guard Reserve after 39 years of service, an experience that has been quite varied.
“I’ve commanded military police units here, stateside, as well as in Afghanistan (and) civil affairs teams in Iraq. I’ve worked with multiple state-department-type entities and ended my career at a four-star level in Tampa, Florida.”
Estes explained that four-star level means “four-star general level.” Some of the projects his team worked on reached as far as the Secretary of State and the President of the United States.
“Just being able to be at that level is very rewarding and honorable to include in my police work over the past 30-some years.”
Estes describes public safety and law enforcement as being hard to “get out of the blood.” That’s why, despite retiring in 2010 from the Chesterfield County Police Department in Virginia, he was excited about the chance to work for the force in Nome.
“I’d been working with one of the trooper friends of mine that I’d been working with for 13, 14 years, that filled me in — and I knew nothing, nothing at all about Nome, Alaska. I look at it this way: I’ve been overseas four times in some really bad areas. This is U.S. soil. Why can’t I come to Nome and be part of Nome? Like I said, it’s an awesome opportunity. I consider it an honor.”
But Chief Estes does come to Nome from Virginia, and it has been a repeated concern by residents at City Council meetings that police officers from outside of the state may not understand some unique regional issues, like Alaska Native cultures or the impacts of historical trauma. This led Chief Estes and other NPD officers to attend cultural training at Katirvik Cultural Center, organized by Kawerak. The Chief says he is willing to do more and that he wants to be involved with the elders of the community.
“It’s culturally understanding who you’re dealing with. Even in Chesterfield, you have a melting pot. It may be a communication issue that’s between us — and if you’re able to talk and you’re able to verify everything that’s going on. But it’s a must to communicate.”
As a result of citizen concerns, the City Council and Nome residents are working on forming a public safety committee. This would be a committee of citizens who work on public safety issues in the community, although the exact function and authority of that committee has yet to be determined. Citizens have submitted their names for such a council, but details on the committee’s function are still being decided in City Council work sessions. Estes has mentioned many times that he wants to work with community engagement but needs to know more about the public safety committee. Chief Estes was asked for his thoughts about a public safety committee:
“I don’t have bad, good, or indifferent (feelings) about it right now. Because there’s not a lot of information about who’s on it, what the discussion’s going to be about.”
Estes does have his own ideas.
“The thing that I’m concerned about is not talking to the community. The City Council is my go-to committee for that. Say, when you go to, say, the Nome Eskimo Community council, with elders and talk with them about community… that’s where I want to go with it. Even though you may have twenty types of councils in the region, they all need to have some part of it. So that’s the big picture of where we’re going with it.”
Estes has been a presence in the community already. In October, NPD hosted a “coffee with the chief” night where citizens were able to meet him, and many expressed their concerns with the department.
Since coming to Nome in September, Chief Bob Estes has already made some changes. Rather than hire more community service officers, Estes has put more focus into hiring more investigators to go through backlogged cases. Those investigators are Mike Heintzelman and Bob Pruckner, who have both worked with Estes previously in Chesterfield, Virginia. The department currently has one community service officer and seven police officers.
So far, Estes cites that staffing has been one of the biggest challenges for him at NPD. He claims that over the last ten years, NPD has seen 30-40 people come and go. He agrees with local residents that part of the answer to that challenge are locals, themselves. The department is hopeful that with more funding and programs that put police officers in the high school, that could be a near reality.
“Absolutely, I am looking to recruit locally.”
And perhaps with more staffing, Bob will have more time to do the things that he loves. He and his wife were active with food banks and volunteering back in Virginia, and he has hopes to do more of that in Nome. The self-described outdoorsmen is also eager to explore the great Alaskan outdoors.
“You’d have thought I was like a little, ten-year-old kid with the fishing here!”
Chief Estes will have a few years to do that. In September, he signed a three-year contract to serve the city. In the coming months, KNOM will continue to provide updates and further stories on public safety matters and changes in programing at NPD.
Image at top: Chief Robert Estes. Photo: Emily Hofstaedter, KNOM.