Nome police invites community to National Night Out
By Julia Lerner
Nome police officers and first responders had the opportunity to meet with community members and families during a National Night Out event, hosted by NPD and the city of Nome on August 3.
“This event is just an opportunity to have the community here to meet the officers that are serving here in Nome,” said NPD Chief Mike Heintzelman. “We want to build a rapport and trust with the community so that we can better serve Nome.”
Heintzelman grilled up hotdogs while several of his officers, including officers Austin Martino, Brandon Murphy and Wanja Kinuthia, served cold beverages and mingled in the Nome Rec Center parking lot between 5 and 8 p.m. Tuesday of last week. The sun was shining and temperatures around Nome reached over 75°F while EMS and fire crews showed off their rescue gear and gave tours to children inside of their ambulance.
“We’re here trying to make positive change within the community and humanize the badge,” explained Officer Kinuthia. “Sometimes people forget that cops are human, too. I’m glad so many people came- this is all any agency in the country could want. There’s no fear or distance [between the officers and community members], and we’re bridging the gap.”
Rose Reale, an emergency services technician in Nome, says EMS personnel wanted to support NPD during the event. “We can’t do our jobs without the police. They make it safe for us to do our jobs,” she explained.
“National Night Out” is a nationwide event that occurs in the first week of August designed to develop relationships between law enforcement officers and the communities they serve. NPD hosted one in 2019 but was unable to do so during the 2020 pandemic.
Heintzelman joined the Nome Police Department in 2018 and has since dedicated his time to improving relations within the community.
“We’re doing this in the spirit of community policing,” he explained. “We’re here for the entire community and want to build that trust.”
In Nome, developing positive relationships between citizens and law enforcement officers is an uphill battle following decades of alleged inappropriate conduct, allegations of not properly investigating violent crimes and sexual assaults and having a revolving door of hires and thus a disconnect between the community and n historic trauma in a predominately Native community.
NPD has an uphill battle to fight when it comes to community trust. In 2003, an on-duty NPD officer murdered 19-year-old Sonya Ivanoff. During the trial of officer Matt Owens allegations surfaced of police misconduct toward the Native community in Nome. Owens was found guilty and sentenced to 99 years in jail. In more recent years, it became known that hundreds of sexual assault kits were left unprocessed and allegations arose that NPD was not adequately investigating sexual assaults and violent crimes. This came to a head in an ongoing civil lawsuit brought by Clarice “Bun” Hardy, a former NPD dispatcher, over the police department not starting an investigation when she reported that she was raped.
Heintzelman’s goal is to improve the sense of community between his officers and Nomeites and hopes that will help bridge the gap on community mistrust.
“I’ve been participating in the National Night Out events for 35 years,” he told the Nugget. “I’ve always been working in community policing.”
One of the challenges in community policing, though, is the lack of consistency in officers. Turnover at the NPD is high, and many officers do not stay in Nome long enough to develop roots or relationships in the community they serve.
According to Heintzelman’s statistical report for the Public Safety Commission that was compiled in late July, staffing limitations and personnel changes have presented challenges in daily policing.
“We have not been able to conduct traffic enforcement as frequently due to staffing limitations,” the report details. Two new officers have started at NPD in the last several months, including Kinuthia. Seven staff members have resigned from the department since May 1 this year.
Despite the challenges, NPD officers were enthusiastic about the turnout at their National Night Out. Tuesday was one of the sunniest days Nomeites had seen in a long time following a summer of record rainfall, and the chief was glad the entire community did not spend the evening fishing.
Emergency Services bestowed the annual “Charlie Lean EMT of the Year” award to ambulance volunteer Ken Morton.