For nearly a year, Nome citizens have publicly cried out for transparency and accountability from their police department. In September, the department hired a new police chief and underwent numerous staffing changes.
In part one of this two-part series, KNOM’s Emily Hofstaedter follows up on investigation requests and accountability within the Nome Police Department.
Nome City Council meetings aren’t normally crowded affairs, but late in the summer of 2018, that changed. Nome citizens had a message for the Council.
“I would encourage you to act immediately. There needs to be people put on leave. There needs to be an immediate investigation. There needs to be action. And we cannot kick the can down the road.”
That’s Justin Noffsker of Nome, one of nearly a dozen citizens to approach the council about the Nome Police Department, all during just one August meeting.
They had questions and demanded answers and accountability. If civilians had complaints about the police department or a particular officer, were those being investigated or taken seriously? And how would they know if they never heard back about their case or concern? Some women went as far as to go to statewide media outlets with the claim that NPD hadn’t investigated their assault at all.
For now, most of those questions still go unanswered. The new Chief of Police, Robert Estes, will not comment on any policies or incidents from before his tenure. Estes was sworn in as Chief in September, after former Chief of Police John Papasadora did not renew his contract with NPD in 2018. Originally from Chesterfield, Virginia, Estes came to Nome after hearing about the position from a friend in the Alaska State troopers.
But he says he hears the community’s concerns.
“There are a few folks that have some major concerns, and we need to talk about them, no matter how tough they are. Because if we don’t, it’s just going to fester and get worse. And I’m not willing to let it fester; we need to take care of each other as a community, but I want folks to know that that’s not an overnight solution…”
In the months since Estes became Chief, three officers have resigned. The new Chief is careful with personnel information and does not provide details as to why these individuals left.
In October, Officers Crystal Toolie and Lance McElroy resigned for undisclosed reasons. In March, Officer Nick Harvey resigned after being placed on administrative leave.
“And I’ve found that that’s in the best interest of not only NPD, but of those individuals and the city as well. One thing that we’ve learned quick over the years is that without policing yourselves, the community is going to want to do it for you.”
In an e-mail, Chief Estes said that the Department of Justice has requested information on former employees, but he did not provide any detail as to who these employees are, when they were employed, or why information was requested. Chloe Martinson, a Department of Justice spokesperson, reports that the DOJ does not confirm or deny the existence of any investigations.
And Chief Estes won’t take action without an investigation.
“One thing I’m not going to have done is have community pressure without doing a proper investigation on everyone. If that involves bringing the Alaska Troopers in or FBI in, we’ll do it and have done it.”
In November, Kawerak, a regional tribal consortium, requested the FBI investigate alleged civil rights violations in the Nome Police Department, but FBI spokesperson Stacey Fager-Pellissier would not comment on whether or not there is currently an investigation into the NPD, or individual employees. However, early this winter, the FBI did confirm with Alaska Public Media that an investigation request was received from Nome.
As for internal review, Chief Robert Estes will not comment on investigations or procedural handlings from before he was sworn in: September 15. Nor will he acknowledge if investigations are currently open. But, if a complaint is filed against an officer, he says he has a process.
Estes claims that for any potential criminal violation, he asks the state troopers to assist with an external review.
“It’s the right thing to do with transparency for that. You could see not only AST and/or federal agencies doing an investigation, but parallel-wise a report to the APSC.”
The APSC is the Alaska Police Standards Council, the state organization that has the ability to determine whether or not an officer should have their certification revoked.*
That is the process Estes claims he will follow in his tenure, though ultimately, the responsibility lies with the hiring police department to do a background check on any new hire. In 2018, the Council did conduct one formal investigation into a Nome Police Department officer, but decided to take no action.
*Note: Under the Alaska Witness and Victims Rights Act, the APSC does not provide names for the officers. The APSC may decide not to take action on a case if their investigation exonerates the individual or the evidence provided was inadequate to justify revoking a certificate. In 2006, APSC formally investigated three cases at NPD. The only two NPD officers to have their certifications revoked are Matthew Owens (2003) and Carl Edward Helding (1979).
Image at top: File photo: Matthew F. Smith, KNOM.