Pro Publica reports that Stebbins, Alaska, a Bering Strait village of 646 people, employed Nimeron Mike as a police officer. When he applied for the job, Mike was a registered sex offender. He had served a total of six years in various Alaska jails and prisons, and 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—and that’s not a complete list.
But he isn’t an exception or an anomaly in Stebbins, Pro Publica’s investigation found. Before he was hired, the Stebbins police chief pleaded guilty in 2017 to throwing a teenage relative to the ground and threatening to kill her after getting drunk on bootleg booze (liquor is illegal in the town.) All seven of the police officers working under him as of July 1, 2019 have pleaded guilty to domestic violence charges. Only one has received formal law enforcement training of any kind. The seven-man police force has served a combined six years in jails, prisons and halfway houses on dozens of criminal charges, and that doesn’t include Nimeron Mike, who was fired in March.
It’s a violation of Alaska public safety regulations for a police force to hire a convicted felon to work as a city police officer, but those laws idealistic aspirations and dead letters in small towns and cities where the job is considered unattractive and the pay is low. 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, with more than 34 officers currently in uniform who are supposed to be legally ineligible for these jobs. The vast majority of the illegal police hires were never reported by municipalities to the state regulatory board as required by law.
The horrible choice faced by these communities is between hiring criminals as police officers, or having none at all. The first choice is irresponsible and incompetent, the alternative is impossible. That means that the only rational option is Unethical Door #1, yet—impressively or stupidly?—many communities choose Ethical Door #2 anyway. ProPublica and the Anchorage Daily News reported in May that one in three Alaska communities has no local police of any kind. Last month, U.S. Attorney General William Barr declared a “law enforcement emergency” in rural Alaska, announcing $10.5 million in Justice Department spending to support village police.
“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.”
That’s exactly what it is. This was the situation in the Old West, when outlaws and sheriffs switched places at will, and a faro dealer like Wyatt Earp could become a famous law man by shooting the right people. In scores of Alaska towns, no one tracks who police officers are, where they came from, whether they’ve passed a background check or if they’ve received any training. The state agency that regulates Alaska police has suspended efforts to address the problem.
Alaska Police Standards Council Director Bob Griffiths admits that his agency’s regular duties of handling complaints and appeals involving qualified police officers are more than it can handle. Checking hiring practices in rural Alaska is financially unfeasible—a pipe dream.
The consequences of hiring former criminals to enforce the law can be dire. When an arrest is made by a officer of dubious qualifications and reliability, an effective prosecution may be impossible. Then there are episodes like the one that occurred in the tundra village of Selawik, at the edge of the Arctic Circle. An officer who had been hired despite being convicted of bootlegging and a still pending charge of giving alcohol to a minor sexually assaulted a 16-year-old who died after the attack. The city settled a subsequent wrongful death lawsuit for $300,000.
“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.’”
The difficult truth to accept is that this obviously unethical choice may still be the most ethical one.
Source: Pro Publica