Public demonstrations decrying the excessive force used by police on Black Americans have prompted some Nome citizens to scrutinize the Nome Police Department’s use of force policies. The only problem is those policies are still entirely redacted, meaning they currently aren’t available to the public.
Nome citizen Aaron Blankenship saw a popular police reform campaign going around social media in the wake of national protests. The campaign is called “8 Can’t Wait” and encourages civilians to ask their local governments to enact bans on chokeholds, require police to issue warnings before shooting, and require de-escalation policies.
But Blankenship recently pointed out to the Nome City Council that Nome residents have no way of knowing whether those are in place locally. He says that denies citizens the chance to hold the local police department accountable.
“Not because citizens are being willfully ignorant, but because they are being willfully denied access to police procedures.”– Aaron Blankenship
If Nome had an incident like the one in Minneapolis: where police officer Derek Chauvin used a chokehold on George Floyd, citizens wouldn’t be able to know whether that force was legal. They would have to depend on the word of the police department, and in Nome there’s a long history of mistrust between the police and residents.
Nome City Manager Glenn Steckman informed the council that policy review is one of the jobs of the newly formed Public Safety Advisory Commission. And, he says, they should review the level of force NPD can use in a situation.
“To make sure that if an officer does something wrong and if another officer is aware, he or she, has a responsibility to report that. And if they fail to report it, they could be brought up on charges too.”– Glenn Steckman
Newly hired Nome Police Chief Mike Heintzelman told the City Council that currently NPD officers are required to submit a use of force report after every incident, which is then reviewed by himself and a sergeant. That review process happens internally, and guidelines for the process are entirely redacted to the public.
Heintzelman says there are reasons why some parts of the local use of force policies wouldn’t be made public. One section allegedly contains information about how police can apprehend perpetrators or investigate a crime, and he told KNOM by phone, that those have to be redacted.
“It could offer insight for someone that is committing a violent act to cover their tracks or eliminate certain things of evidence that would otherwise be gained by an investigation.”– NPD’s Mike Heintzelman
But that still doesn’t help residents keep Nome police accountable, especially if they want to know what use of force is considered allowable in an apprehension or police encounter.
Nome’s heavily redacted policing manual has been the source of scrutiny before. In the past, those concerns have come from advocates for sexual assault survivors who criticized NPD’s sexual assault investigation policies after some women questioned whether their assaults were properly investigated. If those policies were entirely redacted, how could a sexual assault survivor know the police followed their own investigative procedures?
Without even a use of force policy being released to the public, Nome citizens don’t know when their officers are allowed to use force and to what extent. They don’t know when lethal force can be used or if any type of warning must be given beforehand.
The use of force policy is part of the NPD Operations and Procedures Manual. That has not been updated since 2012, despite requests from the public and promises from previous police chiefs that it would be reviewed and released.
Nome isn’t alone in the statewide conversation. Both the Juneau and Anchorage Police Departments recently released versions of their use of force policies after public demand.
Nome’s Police Chief, Heintzelman, was only officially contracted into the lead position two weeks ago. But he admits that the public should have more access than what the department currently offers.
“You should be able to go online and see the kind of situations, where what kind of force is authorized, and what kind of force is legal. You should have that kind of ability.”– Mike Heintzelman
So, when will Nomeites be able to have that knowledge?
After the Public Safety Advisory Commission reviews Nome police’s use of force policy, it would go to the City Council and city attorney before public release. There’s currently no timeline in place for when that review will take place.
The existing Nome Police operations and procedures manual can be found here: in the documents center on the City of Nome website.
Image at top: Nome’s Public Safety Building in April 2014, where the Nome Volunteer Ambulance Department is currently housed. Photo from Matthew F. Smith, KNOM file.