Police audit points toward reforms, but concerns remain
Last December, the City received its final audit report from Russell Consulting LLC, the Soldotna-based police auditor tasked with evaluating the Nome Police Department.
The report was released to the public on February 4.
It made a number of suggestions, many of which the City is moving towards implementing, but some in the community worry that the reforms don’t adequately address fundamental issues.
City Manager Glenn Steckman said the process of the audit started before he joined the city staff. The audit was commissioned by interim City Manager John Handeland and in the early fall of 2019, Russell Consulting began its auditing process, which involved interviews with police staff and inspections of facilities.
Soon after, though, the police chief at the time Bob Estes resigned and low morale triggered a wave of more resignations within the department. The report became delayed, and Steckman ultimately decided to start it over altogether.
“It was significant enough of a delay that I felt it needed to be redone,” Steckman said. “The new chief [Mike Heintzelman] had come in, he had implemented a number of changes, the Public Safety Advisory Commission was up and running by that time. Things had changed significantly.”
So, in addition to the “snapshot” captured in late 2019, the auditors took another “snapshot” in late 2020 and based many of their recommendations on the more recent evaluation.
The recommendations are largely operational in nature. The auditors suggested the department up its officer training, revise its policies, and invest in better organization and accreditation.
It contains specific proposals for trainings to conduct at various experience levels, such as evidence collection for new officers and advanced investigations for more experienced supervisors. However, it doesn’t list detailed suggestions for policy changes.
It also doesn’t mention issues of racism or the deficient investigation of sexual assault which have plagued the department for years. Allegations of NPD’s lack of response in the past to reports made by Alaska Native women have been at the center of community activism in Nome for a long time. Similar issues were the focus of nationwide Black Lives Matter protests this past summer.
The audit does contain brief feedback from community members outside the police at the end of the report, but only in vague terms. It also notes that the comments “reflect the community member’s own perspective and may or may not be compatible with recommendations made elsewhere in this report.”
For Lisa Ellanna, a member of an advocacy group in Nome, these omissions were glaring and disappointing. “It is important to say that this audit was brought about because of public outcry due to racially disparate treatment of Alaska Natives, specifically the Nome Police Department’s lack of investigation of Alaska Native women rape victims,” she said. “Yet, this audit did not acknowledge that fact at all, and it did not say anything about training or policy needs around the issue.”
She also pointed out that the report lacked discussion of the department’s relationship with the Public Safety Advisory Commission, PSAC for short, or of the handling of Sexual Assault Response Team (SART) kits.
“There was no audit of the investigation process for how a sexual assault case is investigated,” she said. “Our community was under the impression that this was the purpose of the audit… to find out how we have failed at the investigation process and how to improve that.”
Steckman said the audit will help usher in some changes within the department, some of which are already underway. The City Council doubled the department’s training budget for the 2020/21 year compared to 2019/20, and while that wasn’t in direct response to the audit, it aimed to address some of the issues brought up there.
“It was a recognition that if we were going to have a better department, we would have to make a greater investment in our employees,” Steckman said. He added that high employee turnover has played a major role in the dropping of sexual assault investigations in the past, so having better trained and more committed employees would lead to more thorough investigations. The training matrix suggested in the report will help inform what the new training funds will go toward.
He also said he hoped to seek the PSAC’s input on whether the department should seek accreditation from a national or regional organization. The commission discussed that topic in their last executive session, he said, and would make a recommendation at their official meeting next Monday.
“We may not agree with their recommendation, but we want to solicit people’s input into this process,” he said. “If they have concerns, we want to hear those concerns and address them.”
It will likely take two or three years to meet accreditation standards, Steckman said, and then the department will need to be reevaluated and reaccredited every three years. He said that accreditation would be central to improving policing in Nome, and that the audit provided critical justification for that effort.
In the short term, their first priority is finding new hires to fill three open spots on the force. Steckman said they put out ads over the last month and a half and have since received over 50 applications. They’re also running ads in regional communities to encourage local residents to become officers.
“How we do things is going to change,” he said. “It’s not going to be that we’ve always done it this way. It’s going to become, ‘This is what we need to do to meet these standards.’”
But for Ellanna and other community members who have been pushing for higher standards for years, serious concerns remain. She hoped to see more specific plans for how the department will improve its policies.
She listed a number of areas that she wished were included in the report, including policies around sexual assault and domestic violence as well as trauma-informed interviewing, racial equity and cultural orientation.
In the future, she hoped the Nome Police Department could address its failings in these areas head on.