Three people sitting around tables discussing topics. There are two TVs with people on the screens

Reports of sexual assault in Nome are down about 50% in the first nine months of 2021 compared to the same period in 2020. But it’s difficult to determine what exactly that means.

As KNOM previously reported, Western Alaska has the highest sexual assault rate in the United States. The reason for this year’s lower numbers is not entirely clear, Nome Chief of Police Mike Heintzelman said.

“I can’t say 100% that it would be a reason, but I can tell you that we aggressively went after and investigated our sexual assault reports. … And we’ve got a good rapport with the district attorney, and now we have an additional person in his department,” Heintzelman said. 

Nome’s new Assistant District Attorney Ashly Crockett started in July. While Crockett has only been in Nome a short time, she has already made an impact.

“She’s resolved a lot of serious cases — a lot of serious sex cases already too, for that matter,” District Attorney John Earthman said.

Bering Sea Women’s Group has seen a similar drop in reports to NPD, Bering Sea Women’s Shelter Executive Director Bertha Koweluk said. But Koweluk did not think that means the number of sexual assaults is decreasing. She worried that people are simply not reporting them — at least in part due to pandemic restrictions.

“And if you think about that, if you’re at work normally 10 hours, and then you’re home for those maybe 10 hours now? You know, it’s safer to be away from home if there’s an abuser, and then you’re having to be stuck inside a home with them for 10 hours. That’s a huge difference.” Koweluk said.

A publication by the National Sexual Violence Resource Center supports Koweluk’s concerns. During times of disaster — such as the ongoing global pandemic — reports of sexual assaults tend to drop, despite the fact that the actual rate of sexual assaults usually increases in disaster situations. Reporting sexual assaults in such times can be seen as “something that is further down on the hierarchy of needs,” Beth Vann, an expert in gender-based violence in times of disaster, said.

The pandemic makes it impossible to say whether sexual assaults are actually decreasing, Koweluk said. She encouraged victims of domestic violence and sexual assault to reach out to authorities and support groups. The Bering Sea Women’s Group has a crisis line at 1-800-570-5444, and NPD’s Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault victims’ advocate Sharon Sparks can be reached at 907-443-8523.

Image at top: Public Safety Advisory Commission meeting. Nov. 1, 2021. Photo by Sean Milligan