ACLU threatens legal action against Nome police for ignoring the rape of Alaska Native women

The ACLU is threatening legal action against the Nome Police Department for what it says is a systemic failure to properly investigate the sexual assault of Alaska Native women—including a 911 dispatcher who worked for the department—in its community.

The action comes a year after 911 dispatcher Clarice Hardy went public with accusations that the Nome Police Department ignored her pleas to investigate a man who had allegedly drugged and sexually assaulted her in March 2017. Hardy said she reported the incident to a colleague and later the police chief only to find out later that neither case had been properly filed and an investigation never began.

Her story, published as part of the Anchorage Daily News’ ongoing look at public safety in rural Alaska, encouraged other women to come forward with similar stories, painting a picture of a police department disinterested in the rape of Alaska Native women.

Today, the ACLU sent a letter to Nome requesting the city pay Hardy $500,000 to compensate her for the “pain and suffering, medical expenses and lost wages” that stemmed from the ordeal. The city has until Oct. 11 to consider the deal or else ACLU says it’s prepared to take civil action.

“The abject failure to act, by people she trusted to keep her safe, has caused Ms. Hardy severe psychological harm and emotional distress, leaving her unable to work or even to feel safe in the City of Nome,” explains the letter. “Ms. Hardy is far from alone. Dozens of other Alaska Native women have complained of sexual assaults to the Nome police, only to have their concerns dismissed or allowed to languish without investigation.”

An audit of the Nome Police Department in the fallout of the Anchorage Daily News story found, as of April 2019, that the department had failed to properly handle 76 cases of first- and second-degree sexual assault from 2015 to 2018, failing to forward any charges to the District Attorney’s office for charges. The DA found that in 19 of those cases the investigations were lacking.

Though the action carries symbolic importance to the other women affected by the department’s failings, it only covers the concerns raised by Hardy.

“It has become evidence in recent months that a systemic, decades long indifference to the safety of Alaska Native women in Nome has led to the deprivation of their rights to equal protection under the constitutions of the United States and Alaska,” wrote the ACLU.

ACLU spokeswoman Megan Edge told the Anchorage Daily News that it’s “very unlikely” that the case could be successfully prosecuted because of the Nome Police Department’s inaction.

“Because it was mishandled she’ll never be able to seek a criminal case against her attacker,” she told the paper. “Ms. Hardy is essentially facing a lifetime of recovery from this trauma.”

Why it matters

Hardy’s decision to come forward with her story, the Anchorage Daily News’ continued efforts to shine a light on public safety in rural Alaska and the ACLU’s legal action continue to illustrate the state of public safety in rural Alaska. It shows that there’s a more complicated and more difficult problem facing rural Alaska than is traditionally presented to lawmakers in Juneau.

Rep. Tiffany Zulkosky, D-Bethel, has helped bring attention to this with hearings on the newly formed House Tribal Affairs Committee. The committee has sparred with members of the Dunleavy administration over its handling of rural public safety, accusing the department of focusing more on urban public safety while ignoring the concerns of Alaska Natives.

This story in particular shows just how poorly Alaska’s criminal justice system is serving rural Alaska and Alaska Native women in particular.

It’s unclear what will change the latest action and prevent such cases from happening in the future, but this kind of attention serves as a disinfectant for the problem. Already, the police chief, John Papasodora, who ignored her appeal has left the department and Nick Harvey has been demoted.

The letter

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