Amidst the turmoil and concern rising with public safety in Nome and the surrounding region, the path forward starts with working together to restore faith and trust in the justice system. Kawerak and the City of Nome formalized their willingness to work side-by-side with a joint request to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) to examine the Nome Police Department (NPD). The letter written and signed by Melanie Bahnke, Kawerak Inc President and John Handeland, City of Nome Interim City Manager, on November 6th, 2018 called upon the FBI to fulfill their responsibility to investigate civil rights violations. The entities presented the request to Governor Bill Walker, who subsequently committed to supporting the request.

In conjunction with the call to remedy the past, positive action locally has already begun. New leadership stepped forward at the city level and within the police department, Kawerak provided $16,000 for training of local officers, the city purchased body cameras for officers, a City of Nome public safety advisory standing committee will be formed, and an additional investigator was hired by the NPD, with two more on the way. Local organizations are banding together to improve outcomes and increase public safety.

Strengthening the community also includes having the appropriate resources to prevent violence, protect it’s people and ensure justice is served. The letter sent to the FBI and the State of Alaska requested more personnel for the Nome District Attorney’s Office and the expediting of hiring for local Alaska State Troopers (AST) and Office of Children’s Services (OCS) personnel. The Second Judicial District’s two DA’s serving the Bering Strait Region and the Kotzebue Region, rank at the top of the list for highest caseload per attorney in the State. three of the four AST positions are vacant, and four out of six OCS caseworker positions are currently vacant, with the remaining two caseworkers managing 315 open cases.

Justice and safety for victims of sexual assault and violent crimes is not only a local Nome problem, but a systemic issue. In this collaborative effort, Kawerak and the City of Nome are calling upon the State Legislature and Administration to enact stronger laws to protect victims of sexual assault and violent crimes, and to deter abuse by establishing stiffer minimum sentencing ranges and other consequences.

The joint letter, action taken, and support from the State thus far demonstrates progress toward an improved system of public safety that protects victims, restores public trust in law enforcement and the justice system, and improves outcomes for victims. The statistics regarding sexual assault and physical abuse are unacceptable; 51% of women in the Bering Strait Region have reported being physically or sexually abused (actual rates are likely much higher since disclosure rates of abuse are low). These statistics will only see change through collaboration and commitment to an improved justice system.

Kawerak’s mission is to advance the capacity of our people and tribes for the benefit of the region. Kawerak is an Alaska Native regional nonprofit tribal consortium that provides over 40 different programs to the Inupiaq, St. Lawrence Island Yupik and Yupik people who reside in 16 communities of western Alaska and represents the 20 federally recognized tribes in the Bering Strait Region.