STEBBINS — When Nimeron Mike applied to be a city police officer here last New Year’s Eve, he didn’t really expect to get the job.
Mike was a registered sex offender and had served six years behind bars in Alaska jails and prisons. He’d been convicted of assault, domestic violence, vehicle theft, groping a woman, hindering prosecution, reckless driving, drunken driving and choking a woman unconscious in an attempted sexual assault. Among other crimes.
“My record, I thought I had no chance of being a cop,” Mike, 43, said on a recent weekday evening, standing at his doorway in this Bering Strait village of 646 people.
He was wrong.
On the same day Mike filled out the application, the city of Stebbins hired him, handing him a policeman’s cellphone to answer calls for help.
“Am I a cop now?” he remembers thinking. “It’s like, that easy?”
The short answer is yes. With low pay and few people wanting the jobs, it is that easy in some small Alaska communities for a convicted felon, even someone who has admitted to a sex crime or who was recently released from prison, to be hired with public money to work as a city police officer.It’s also a violation of state public safety regulations, yet it happens all the time.
In Stebbins alone, all seven of the police officers working as of July 1 have pleaded guilty to domestic violence charges within the past decade. Only one has received formal law enforcement training of any kind.
The current police chief pleaded guilty to throwing a teenage relative to the ground and threatening to kill her after drinking homebrew liquor in 2017. (Alcohol is illegal in the village.) He was hired a year later. He declined to answer questions in person and blocked a reporter on Facebook.
Two men who until recently were Stebbins police officers pleaded guilty to spitting in the faces of police officers; one was the subject of a 2017 sexual assault restraining order in which a mother said he exposed himself to her 12-year-old daughter. (The officer named in the restraining order said he was busy and hung up the phone when asked about his criminal history; the other officer admitted to the crime.)
The seven-man police force has served a combined six years in jails, prisons and halfway houses on dozens of criminal charges. That doesn’t include Mike, who was terminated on March 29, city records show. He says he wasn’t given a reason, but the city administrator said it was because he wasn’t responding to calls and didn’t get along with another officer.
ProPublica and the Anchorage Daily News reported in May that one in three Alaska communities has no local cops of any kind. In June, U.S. Attorney General William P. Barr declared a “law enforcement emergency” in rural Alaska, announcing $10.5 million in Justice Department spending to support village police.
In the villages where there are cops, a different problem has emerged. A first-of-its-kind investigation by the Daily News and ProPublica has found that at least 14 cities in Alaska have employed police officers whose criminal records should have prevented them from being hired under Department of Public Safety regulations. The news organizations identified more than 34 officers who should have been ineligible for these jobs. In all but three cases, the police hires were never reported by the city governments to the state regulatory board, as required.
In eight additional communities, local tribal governments have hired tribal police officers convicted of domestic violence or sex crimes.
All 42 of these tribal and city police officers have rap sheets that would prevent them from being hired by the Anchorage Police Department and its urban peers, as Alaska state troopers or even as private security guards most anywhere else in the United States. Many remain on the job today.
“It’s outrageous that we have a situation where we have a, such a lack of public safety that communities are resorting to hiring people who have the propensity for violence,” said Melanie Bahnke, a board member for the Alaska Federation of Natives, which represents 191 tribes. “And placing them in a position where they have control over people and possibly could victimize the victims further.”
“That’s like a frontier mentality,” said Bahnke, who is also chief executive for Kawerak Inc., a Nome-based tribal consortium that oversees state-paid police in the region.
A key part of the problem: There aren’t enough state troopers or other state-funded cops to go around. When it comes to boots-on-the-ground law enforcement, village police officers (VPOs) and tribal police officers (TPOs) working in Alaska villages are at least as common. Yet no one keeps track of who these officers are, where they are working, if they’ve passed a background check or if they’ve received any training.
The state agency that regulates Alaska police has suspended efforts to solve this mess.
Alaska Police Standards Council Director Bob Griffiths said his agency barely has the time to fulfill its regular duties of juggling complaints and appeals involving certified police officers. It doesn’t have enough money to also visit rural Alaska so it can research ways to fix police hiring practices. That effort will come in the fall, at the earliest.
Yet the stakes are high. The same Alaska towns that have no police, or criminals working as cops, are in areas with some of the highest rates of domestic violence and sexual assault in the country.
When a case relies on an arrest by an untrained cop who has a criminal record, prosecutors sometimes do not want to put that person in front of a jury and instead might drop or reduce felony charges, Griffiths warned. “I could see felony domestic violence assault cases that end up being pleaded down to harassment or coercion.”
Nome District Attorney John Earthman agreed that sometimes happens, and that cases involving untrained officers sometimes lack key evidence such as recordings of initial interviews. He said public defenders have raised concerns about some police because they have defended those same officers on recent criminal charges.
“I’ve been out here almost 20 years and some of these are realities that you just don’t see in the city,” Earthman said. Still, the hiring of Mike as a village police officer came as a surprise.
“If he’s the only one who took a statement from a suspect or a defendant, that may be an issue.”
‘You are absolutely desperate’
The story of how Alaska communities came to quietly hire criminals as police officers, without consequence or oversight, is the story of how cash-poor local governments found themselves without law enforcement and few options.
There are several different forms of police in rural Alaska.
The best trained and best paid are state troopers. More than 300 work across Alaska, but just one-third are based off the road system.
Next is a class of cops unique to Alaska: village public safety officers (VPSOs), who are nearly as well-trained as troopers and are also paid by the state. But the number of VPSOs appears to be at an all-time low, with just 42 officers statewide this year, compared with more than 100 in 2013.
On the same day the federal government announced millions in emergency funds for Alaska rural police in June, Gov. Mike Dunleavy revealed he had vetoed millions from the VPSO program, saying the money was for vacant positions.
Dunleavy, a Republican, has declared a “war on criminals” and vowed to punish sexual predators. “If you hurt Alaskans, if you molest children, if you assault women, we’re really going to come after you,” Dunleavy said at a July 8 crime bill signing.
Asked moments later why the Alaska Police Standards Council has suspended efforts to revamp law enforcement hiring regulations, given that men convicted of sex crimes are working as police in some villages, Dunleavy offered no specifics but said he planned to hold meetings over the summer with “stakeholders.”
Bahnke, the head of the Nome-based nonprofit that employs VPSOs, said that only five of the 15 communities in her region have VPSOs and called on the state to spend unused salaries on equipment, housing and other amenities that would make it easier to recruit new officers.
Alaska Native leaders once sued to force the state to provide armed, trained police in villages, but their lawsuit failed in state court. That leaves VPOs and TPOs to pick up the slack. They tend to be younger, paid less and have less training than traditional police.
VPOs, such as those in Stebbins, are mainly expected to enforce city laws such as curfews and misdemeanors. In practice, however, they must sometimes handle life-and-death encounters such as standoffs and suicide threats. TPOs perform a similar role but are employed by federally recognized tribes and are not regulated by the state.
Of the emergency village law enforcement funding announced in June by the attorney general, $4.5 million will go to hire tribal officers who will not be required to undergo background checks.
But lack of funding for cops isn’t the only problem. Many villages have no housing for police, no secure jail cells or no public safety building. When Barr visited the state in May to see the problem for himself, he called the lack of services one of the most pressing public safety needs in the United States.
Our review also found that villages have routinely ignored — or said they were unaware of — laws that require training and bar people with certain criminal records from being hired.
Last year, the Daily News reported on isolated cases of people with criminal records working as police in remote Alaska villages. That story focused on a case at the edge of the Arctic Circle, in the tundra village of Selawik, where the city employed an officer who had been convicted of bootlegging and faced a pending charge of giving alcohol to a minor when he sexually assaulted an underage girl. The 16-year-old died the night of the attack, and the city settled a subsequent wrongful death lawsuit for $300,000. (The officer pleaded guilty to rape and furnishing alcohol to a minor in that case but was not charged in her death. He has not responded to numerous interview requests.)
What happened in Selawik is far from an isolated example, our comprehensive examination shows. Between January and May, ProPublica and the Daily News identified 50 city and tribal governments that employ officers. Some would not provide names, but of the 159 officers identified, more than 42 have been convicted of or pleaded guilty to assault or another crime, most often domestic violence, that is typically a bar to working in law enforcement.
Leaders in some communities, including Stebbins, say they have little alternative but to hire anyone they can.
“It’s easy to look at in that light, ‘How could these people hire criminals to do this job?’” said Jason Wilson, public safety manager for several Southeast Alaska villages.
“When you live in a community and you’re desperate, you are absolutely desperate for some law enforcement and to have somebody step up that might have a blemished record, you are willing to say, ‘OK, I think person is still going to do OK for us.’”
Asked if the criminal backgrounds of some TPOs and VPOs hamper investigations or undermine prosecutors’ cases, Alaska’s Public Safety Commissioner Amanda Price said the local officers are vital to fighting crime in far-flung communities.
“Our troopers regularly say that, while tomorrow they might have to arrest a VPO or a TPO, today they are critical,” Price said.
‘He was our only applicant’
In village after village, troubling examples abound.
In Mountain Village, population 864, one recent VPO awaits trial on charges of stealing from a murder scene. Court records show five other recent VPOs in the same Yukon River community are awaiting hearings or have admitted to criminal charges including four counts of disorderly conduct, three counts of assault, two cases of neglect, two cases of drunken driving, two charges of harassment and three cases of domestic violence.
Along the Norton Sound coast, the city of Shaktoolik in May hired a VPO who has pleaded guilty to five assault charges within the past 10 years. “He was our only applicant so we had no other choice,” a city employee said.
Among those hired as TPOs in the fishing villages of Kasigluk and Tuntutuliak, located among the vast web of river-fed lakes in western Alaska, are registered sex offenders who admitted to abuse of a minor or attempted sexual abuse of a minor. The Kasigluk tribal administrator said he was directed by the tribal council not to talk to a reporter about the issue. In Tuntutuliak, Administrator Deanna White said the village council was willing to hire an offender on a part-time basis because of constant turnover and a lack of applicants in the high-stress job.
“Every time we hired, they wouldn’t last,” she said.
In the Kuskokwim Bay village of Kwigillingok, a 33-year-old man worked as a tribal police officer while subject to a long-term domestic violence restraining order. He was indicted in February on charges of sexually abusing an 11-year-old and is awaiting trial in a Bethel jail. He has pleaded not guilty.
And in the nearby Kuskokwim River village of Napakiak, recent police hires include William Gibson Smith as a TPO.
Smith was picked to patrol the village despite a complaint filed two years earlier by a young mother whose 3-year-old daughter told her that her bottom hurt. The girl later confided that Smith had touched her there, according to an application for a sexual assault restraining order filed in Bethel court. Based on a “preponderance of the evidence,” a magistrate ordered that Smith, who was not present at the hearing, stay away from the family. (Such an order is not automatically disqualifying, but the regulations say candidates must be of “good moral character.”)
Despite the judge’s orders, a matter of public record and discoverable on a public court database, Smith was hired to perform police work in Napakiak. He had the power to place his neighbors in custody and to hold them against their will if he declared them to be drunk or disorderly. In October, the Alaska State Troopers arrested Smith on charges of having sex with a different underage girl, and he has been in custody since. Today he is awaiting trial in that case and in another, in which he was charged with sexually assaulting a woman in police custody. He has pleaded not guilty in both cases.
In Stebbins, Louise Martin said she knows all too well the toll that officers with criminal records can take on a town. She recently filed a restraining order against a current city police officer, accusing the man of threatening her in person and through Facebook messages in which he said he would beat her up. Prior to his hire, the officer had been convicted of domestic violence and bootlegging.
“For him to be a cop, he shouldn’t be acting like this, especially if there’s kids + elders around,” Martin wrote in her application for the restraining order. An initial order was granted but a longer-term one was denied because Martin did not participate at a hearing.
Martin, grew up in Stebbins and isn’t unsympathetic to the needs of the village. “They need a trooper in town.” But she said the city cops “hide behind their badge and harass people and drink on the job.”
One of the worst jobs in town
Stebbins, an Inupiaq and Yup’ik village, survived a generation of monstrous sexual abuse by a Catholic priest and church volunteers. It is plagued by 12% unemployment, and its lone grocery store charges twice as much for food as it costs in Anchorage. As the lack of police data regarding missing and murdered indigenous women raises concerns nationwide, residents of Stebbins and neighboring St. Michael say the suspicious death of a local woman, 19-year-old Chynelle “Pretty” Lockwood, in 2017 remains unsolved.
The city offers no benefits to part-time officers who walk into life-and-death emergencies. They are untrained and unarmed, their only equipment a cellphone and a pair of handcuffs. The police department, like most homes, has no flush toilets or running water.
Next to hauling waste, residents say being a cop is one of the worst jobs in town. In 2001, the mayor of Stebbins was shot in the face as part of a robbery scheme involving a 20-year-old man who had been working as a VPO despite jail sentences for assault and animal cruelty.
“I was not very fond of that (hire) in the first place,” then-Mayor Robert Ferris told the Daily News at the time, having survived the shooting. But, he reasoned, “In a place like this you take any help you can get.”
After serving time in prison for his role in the mayor’s shooting, the former VPO returned to Stebbins and was eventually hired back by the city as a police officer, current city officials said.
Little has changed in recent years.
“Other people don’t want to apply,” said the current Stebbins city administrator, Joan Nashoanak, when asked why her local government has hired so many VPOs with criminal backgrounds. “They are willing to work.”
In Alaska’s largest city, the Anchorage Police Department receives 18 applications for every cop it hires. Each recruit is subject to criminal background checks, drug tests and polygraphs.
“It’s incredibly important for our department to uphold those standards because they are key to upholding the public’s trust in law enforcement,” said APD Chief Justin Doll, who serves on the Alaska Police Standards Council board. “If the public looks at a law enforcement officer and sees a lengthy criminal background, it undermines that trust.”
Anchorage police pay starts at $33.61 an hour plus benefits, retirement and a union.
In Stebbins, Nashoanak said it’s impossible to avoid candidates with a felony or a misdemeanor within the past five years, who should be prohibited from serving as cops by law, because of constant burnout and turnover. Officers are paid $14 an hour.
Factor in small-town politics and the pressure to look the other way when an influential person or family gets in trouble, and it’s easy to see why officers are constantly quitting.
“It’s a problem, but it’s never really been addressed,” Nashoanak said. “We can’t find anybody else without a criminal background.”
A former city administrator, Doreen Tom, says she has complained to the city about the officers’ conduct and rap sheets.
“These guys are criminals,” Tom said of the VPOs. “There’s qualifications to be a police. What you can’t be and what you can be. You can’t have a misdmeanor within five years and these policemen, there’s police who were charged with rape. People who were charged with assault.”
One recent Stebbins VPO is 24-year-old Harold Kitsick Jr., who has worked off and on over the past year despite a conviction for spitting in the face of a police officer in nearby Kotlik in 2013. The victim in that case said Kitsick had threatened to kill him, his 6-year-old child and his wife and vowed to burn down his house. The Kotlik officer said that he could smell gasoline around his home and that he waited out the night with a gun handy, afraid for his life.
Reached by phone, Kitsick denied that he threatened the police officer but admitted to attacking him. “I assaulted him, I hit him. I spit on him and kicked him. That was it.”
The Kotlik VPO quit being a police officer soon after the encounter with Kitsick. He asked not to be identified because his wife still works in the region. He, too, was a VPO with a criminal record, he said. The city of Kotlik recruited him despite an assault charge that should have prevented him from being hired under state law.
“There’s really no background checks to it,” he said.
Stebbins city records show Kitsick stopped working as a police officer on May 28 after two years on patrol. He sometimes tried looking for different work with better pay and more hours, he said, but jobs are scarce in the village.
“Then (the city) asked me to go back. I was, like, ‘Well, might as well,’” said Kitsick, who is currently awaiting trial on two new charges. Troopers accused him of punching a woman in the face and punching fellow Stebbins VPO John Aluska in two separate 2018 incidents. He has pleaded not guilty to both.
Aluska, who himself was convicted of domestic violence in 2010 and 2014, said he hasn’t been in trouble in years and is part of a roster of about seven officers who some Stebbins residents said work well together.
“The current ones we have are pretty good,” Stebbins health aide Tania Snowball said of the police force. While she spoke, Snowball cleaned a gleaming chum salmon, hauled moments earlier from the Bering Sea. “The ones in the past, they never answered their phones.”
As a health aide, Snowball said she partners with VPOs. If there were no police — or if the city couldn’t hire people with criminal records — Snowball said there would be no one to assist her in emergencies such as suicide attempts or shootings. She would quit the clinic.
“You have to have somebody help respond, because most of the people that call are intoxicated. There’s four-wheeler accidents or serious injuries,” she said. “VPOs gotta be available.”
‘I’m a pretty good cop’
A few hours after the health aide finished cutting fish along the foaming shoreline, Aluska began the midnight to 4 a.m. patrol. Rain beaded on his four-wheeler, a Honda shared by the entire police force.
Aluska circled the village in a wide loop. There are no stoplights and no paved roads in Stebbins. Most homes rest on stilts; red foxes and berry bushes hide in the knee-high grass. All groceries and vehicles arrive by plane or barge, and trailer-sized shipping containers in primary colors dot the yards. Aluska has lived here all his life.
“Go home!” he hollered to a crowd of middle-school-age kids outside the gymnasium. More than 40% of the village population is younger than 19, and parents said it’s hard to keep them indoors this time of year, when the sun dips low and red but never really sets.
“Don’t make me tell you again,” Aluska warned. A boy in a hoodie shuffled his feet, walking with exaggerated slowness.
The Honda engine clicked and popped as he turned off the ignition. The real trouble usually starts later. Everyone knows when the VPOs go off duty.
If someone is driving drunk, getting in fights or becomes a danger to themselves, they are held in one of three cells in the city jail. The building used to be a library, but it was converted when someone broke the fuel line at the old jail house, soaking the building in heating oil.
Aluska likes the new jailhouse. No one has broken out yet.
“In my time it was easier,” Aluska said.
The 42-year-old said he got into his share of trouble when he was younger. Making homebrew. Escaping custody. “It’s been years ago now since I last went to jail.”
Asked if he had ever been convicted of domestic violence, Aluska said he had, in 1998, but the charge was dropped. State court records show he also pleaded guilty to domestic violence-related assault charges in 2010 and 2014.
Aluska doesn’t think his record makes him any less able to keep the village safe. Same for his colleagues.
“Not really,” he said. “I get a call and, if you’re drunk and doing bad things, I’ll come get you.”
The next afternoon the rain disappeared, replaced by a damp heat that sent kids splashing between gillnets.
At city hall, the Stebbins City Council gathered for a monthly meeting. Chairs ringed a cafeteria table beneath property maps of village landmarks: The Old Church. The Elder Center. The New School. Skin drums and a bingo scoreboard (proceeds help pay police salaries) adorned the adjacent community hall.
One by one, the police officers gave monthly reports and brainstormed public safety ideas. Officer Delbert Acoman suggested police begin wearing small body cameras purchased from Amazon; the police chief admitted he can’t bring himself to shoot dogs when an animal needs to be put down. One officer who is the subject of a current restraining order wondered about turning a vacant building into a teen center.
At 45, Acoman said he’s worked as a Stebbins police officer off and on for two decades. During that time, court records show, he has been convicted of a dozen crimes, including three counts of domestic violence. His last no-contest plea to assault came five years ago and Acoman said he’s turned a corner — trying to provide for his wife and kids. A steady job makes that possible.
Acoman headed home as his colleagues prepared for overnight patrols. Middle schoolers chased rebounds on an outdoor basketball court as two young men sat wrenching on a four-wheeler, fanning mosquitoes.
At the edge of town lives Nimeron Mike, the registered sex offender. While he was working as a police officer he could never shake the feeling that visiting state troopers might take him away to jail, instead of the people he arrested.
Mike said he is ready to go back on patrol any time the city needs him. He figures street smarts must count for something.
“I’ve done my time, now all I want to do is work and make money,” he said. “I’m a pretty good cop.”
For now, the state of Alaska hasn’t caught up with Mike’s change in job status. The official state sex offender registry database still lists his employer as “City of Stebbins.”
Story editing: Charles Ornstein (ProPublica) and David Hulen (ADN). Photo editing: Anne Raup.