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“Cold Cases”: Police Chief Says Audit of Sexual Assault Cases is On Hold

Block letters spelling "POLICE" on the side of a Nome Police Department SUV.

Nome Police Chief Bob Estes updated the City Council on the department’s audit of old sexual assault cases during their regular meeting Monday night. Now that two of the temporary investigators have left, the future of NPD’s audit is bleak.

“We don’t have the personnel to investigate it now. So, they’re stopped. They’re going to be basically cold case(s) right now.”

And, as Estes explains, that also includes the sexual assault kits sent back from the state crime lab that were determined to require additional DNA testing. With staffing so low, the department now has to focus its resources on current cases. Estes says they have handled 35 sexual assault cases since the beginning of 2019, 31 of those have been forwarded to the District Attorney and four were re-opened after police obtained additional information.

The Chief gave the interim City Manager John Handeland a four-a-half-page report detailing the 460 cases the department has audited within the last year, but that was not distributed to the public or council on Monday as Handeland had not yet read it.

According to the Chief every shift should have two officers and a supervisor on shift; but right now, the department has only one officer at a time and the supervisors also respond to calls. Estes says the department is looking for grants to get more investigators, but he urges the Council to look for ways to lessen the stress on the police department and says that the state of public safety could continue to decline.  He also told the Council that the public is “suffering” and the Alaska Native community especially needs to be able to “step up and be empowered”.

“We’re here because we want to be here for the citizens of Nome. It’s unsustainable, unsustainable. I’m asking you here, at what risk are you willing to accept for the community? That’s all I’m asking. I’m not willing to accept a risk.”

Councilmember Jerald Brown pointed out that the city has increased the budget for public safety significantly. The approved FY 20 budget for policing is nearly half a million dollars more than the original FY 19 budget. Estes suggests the City revisit some of its alcohol ordinances as many of their calls are alcohol-related.

The full, seven-member Council did not have any business to discuss or vote on Monday night. As per the usual meeting format, Ken Morton, Assistant Utilities Manager at Nome Joint Utilities System gave a Utility manager’s report. He says that due to high seas, the city’s annual fuel delivery is still unable to be delivered.

Morton also elaborated on the failure of a River Street lift station pump on September 11th. The blockage in the pump appeared to be due to a moose-hide, which was subsequently cleared, but domestic wastewater continued to flow into the Snake River after initial attempts to stop it failed.

“We had a brand-new 56 horsepower pump that we immediately dropped in but the motor-starter system for that pump was not functioning and we had to switch operations. That took the better part of a day.”

The blockage and continued system failures caused wastewater to flow into the Snake River for approximately 24 hours. Morton says that 56-horsepower pump is working “just fine” for now and that they have ordered additional pumps as backups, should they be needed in the future. After the new pump was installed, discharge continued after the motor system failed to work correctly.  Morton says that motor system was “state of the art” when it was made in 1992 but over time has become obsolete, reaching the end of its service life and needing parts NJUS hasn’t been able to procure. While the pumps are working now, with the help of a variable frequency drive to serve the motor starter function, NJUS hopes to get funding from an NSEDC grant to finance construction of a new motor system.

Lastly, commissioners-elect from the public safety commission have already begun to address the Council with their concerns. Ivory Okleasik of Nome told the Council on Monday she hoped they would do more suicide-prevention work, and wanted to know how the voices of the Nome’s homeless population could be incorporated into the public safety discussion.

There is an executive session scheduled for this upcoming Monday, when the Council is expected to discuss the potential settlement with the ACLU and former dispatcher, Clarice Hardy. They will also discuss the three city manager finalists as they search for a permanent one.

Image at the top: Nome Police vehicle. KNOM file photo: Matthew F. Smith.

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