‘We’re still not safe’: Nome reckons with sexual assaults

Front Street in Nome, January 2018.

Front Street in Nome, January 2018. (Photo by Zachariah Hughes/Alaska Public Media)

For months in Nome, long-simmering frustrations over how the police department handles sexual assault allegations and investigations have been airing publicly, commanding attention and prompting a local reckoning.

Now major reforms are taking place. The city government is even joining a call for federal officials to investigate the conduct of its own police department.

Advocates spent years laying the groundwork for changes that are now starting to materialize. And they say they’re not done.

In 2015, Clarice “Bun” Hardy started working as a dispatcher with the Nome Police Department.

“I loved it,” she explained. Sociable and well-connected, Hardy took a certain professional delight in handling missing person calls. “I’d have that person tracked down in like 10, 15 minutes. It’s just something I loved to do.”

“But I don’t think I could ever go back there,” she added.

In March of 2017, Hardy said she was drugged and sexually assaulted. She was at a bar, halfway through a second drink before she blacked out. The next day she woke up in just a T-shirt, no idea how she got home or why she was in pain. Eventually, she found her phone under the couch, the battery dead.

“I got it charged, and that’s when my Snapchat just started blowing up,” Hardy said. In messages and voicemails, people kept asking if she was OK, and whether she had seen the video.

Hardy was confused. “I’m like, ‘What video?’”

Hardy believes that her assailant’s girlfriend broke into her apartment and took a video of the assault, putting it on social media soon after. She said it circulated for a few hours before being taken down. Hardy was horrified. She reported what happened to a colleague at work, Lt. Nick Harvey, who told her he’d investigate.

Over the next few months, Hardy would ask Harvey about the status of the case, always getting a response of, “I’m working it,” from Harvey, she recalled.

But Hardy grew increasingly frustrated by what seemed like a total lack of progress.

Eventually, she said, she started asking people she knew had seen the original video clip whether police investigators had followed up with them. Nobody had.

“There was no report. He never talked to anyone,” Hardy said.

Even though Hardy was a member of Nome’s small police department at the time, her case languished for more than a year. (Hardy is no longer a Nome city employee.)

Harvey did not respond to multiple requests for comment. Earlier this year he was demoted from a lieutenant to a sergeant at NPD.

Hardy’s story isn’t unique.

For years, a group of mostly Alaska Native women in Nome had been meeting. It started informally over dinners, sharing stories about sexual assaults they had lived through or heard about from friends and family.

“Nobody would get calls back from the police department, nobody would get any follow-up,” Nome resident Lisa Navruk Ellanna said. “Nothing. Not one darn thing.”

Ellanna hosted those first meals around her kitchen table, and eventually the group solicited more stories from women around town, as well as from cab drivers and bartenders. To them, it seemed like NPD didn’t treat assault allegations seriously if a woman said she was drinking or in a bar beforehand.

“We started to hear this pattern of how the police department was not responding, was not investigating, was not following through, was not seeking justice on behalf of the victims,” Ellanna said.

“This is years in the making,” said Darlene Paqpaluk Trigg, Ellanna’s friend and co-organizer. Though ongoing national conversations around sexual harassment and assault have affected discussions in Nome, Trigg cautioned against placing too much emphasis on them as catalysts for what’s played out around town.

“This is something that existed here prior to any of it being called out on the national scale,” Trigg added.

An important chapter in Nome’s reckoning started in May, when Trigg and Ellanna were part of a group of about 20 women that showed up at a city meeting with a document. It outlined more than a dozen changes they wanted the city and police department to make in their handling of sexual assaults. One was more training for officers who do interviews in assault cases. Another was better trauma response, and a third was cultural orientation for police new to the Bering Strait region.

As the summer wore on, the typically sleepy council meetings were packed, and the conversation grew heated.

In the women’s estimation, nothing changed. So this fall, advocates started running for local offices.

Trigg, a first-time candidate, ran for a seat on the local school board on a platform of improving racial equity. A 28-year-old lawyer, Meghan Sigvanna Topkok, landed a seat on the city council.

“I wanted to see more Native voices,” Topkok said. “I was particularly concerned about domestic violence and sexual assault and how it’s handled in our city. So I wanted to be part of how we’re going to move forward with that.”

Topkok knows firsthand what it means to mistrust the police department. She said that’s part of what kept her from reporting her own sexual assault after it happened in 2013, the same year she moved back to town after college.

“It was easier to just keep that to myself and not talk about it,” she said. “I still don’t talk about it very often.”

Though Nome is about half Alaska Native, for years the six members of the city council have been almost exclusively white and male. This fall, Topkok is one of the council’s two women.

From her vantage point as an attorney and a council member, Topkok said the police department’s problems stem from its budget.

“Some of it just comes back to the fact that we’re very understaffed,” Topkok said. “I also think that our police officers are underpaid for the amount of work that they have to do.”

This is a point almost everyone agrees on. Nome is a regional hub with the only bars and liquor stores for hundreds of miles in almost every direction. The volume of calls to emergency responders for help is staggering, with a huge share of them related to alcohol. The police force is small, often only able to field a single officer on each patrol shift, leaving little or no time for follow-ups, investigations or community policing. One officer recently made nine arrests in a single shift, according to the department’s current head.

There is disagreement, however, about the performance of the previous police chief, John Papasodora.

Community advocates critical of Papasodora say he repeatedly turned away resources and offers for more training and personnel, like grant money from third-party groups. Papasodora declined a request for an interview, but he wrote in an email, “The performance of the department has been scrutinized, and changes were implemented to address the issues.”

Ellanna and Hardy, among others, say that racism is a problem within the department’s upper ranks. Those claims have revived memories of the 2003 case of Matthew Owens, a white Nome police officer convicted of abducting and killing 19-year-old Sonya Ivanoff.

The tragedy remains a “stain on the community,” according to Melanie Bahnke, president of the regional nonprofit Kawerak.

“That memory doesn’t go away,” Bahnke said in her office. “A young Alaska Native woman was murdered at the hands of the Nome Police Department. It’s like pulling off a scab.”

In November, Kawerak asked the Justice Department to independently investigate whether there was a pattern of NPD ignoring sexual assault claims. In a new step, the city of Nome signed onto the same letter, agreeing to let federal officials look into local policing practices.

Anchorage FBI spokeswoman Staci Feger-Pellessier said the bureau has received the request from Nome, but would not comment on whether an investigation is open.

Now, Nome has a few new leaders in key positions. One of main targets of activists’ frustration this summer was the city manager, Tom Moran, who they felt was not doing enough to hold the police department accountable. Moran was pushed out of his job a few days before the end of his contract in October.

Moran said that what might have seemed like inaction was in fact a difficult balancing act between transparency and respecting confidentiality in sensitive investigations and personnel matters. But he also acknowledged lapses.

“There were a lot of open cases that probably should have been tied up and packaged and sent off to the district attorney, and they hadn’t been,” Moran said during a November interview. “The main question was why this was being allowed to transpire.”

He pointed to gaps in training and staffing at NPD as a prime reason, as well as an insufficient budget for expanding public safety services.

Leaders in Nome say the city is responding to those and other problems. The new police chief, Bob Estes, said he is committed to rebuilding the department, in part by incorporating more community input and hiring more officers. The new interim city manager, John Handeland, has deep ties in Nome and supports the request for a federal investigation.

“I’ve heard personal stories from folks of cases and incidents where they feel that their claims were not taken seriously,” Handeland said. “I tend to agree with some of them.”

For their part, activists worry that a few early reforms will allow deeper problems to go unresolved. City meetings have cooled off, with much sparser attendance. An early demand to set up a community advisory board to oversee the police department sounded at first like it was a sure thing. Now, according to Ellanna, the city council seems less committed. She worries that with less pressure on elected leaders, momentum will slow.

For Trigg, the fundamental problem remains firmly in place: Women in Nome are still not safe.

“When you have an investigation that comes back with conclusions and recommendations, that’s when you’re able to say ‘progress.’ Implementation of those recommendations: That’s progress,” Trigg listed off.

“Taking the bad characters out of the equation: That’s just doing what’s right,” she added.

One important change that has already taken root: The last few months of organizing have brought more personal stories of sexual assault out into public. Trigg and others say that is diminishing some of the long-standing stigma and isolation that used to come with keeping silent.

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