When Unethical Conduct Is The Only Option: The Stebbins, Alaska Conundrum

Stebbins, Alaska.

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

14 thoughts on “When Unethical Conduct Is The Only Option: The Stebbins, Alaska Conundrum

  1. Alaska is a state that doles out a dividend to every eligible resident. Those funds should be redirected to fund legitimate police officers.

    What is not mentioned here is how the remoteness of these villages make it next to impossible to recruit anyone except local Inuit peoples or transplants hiding out in the wilderness.

    I wonder if our maternalism to the Inuit tribesman and woman have created a society that has no ability for quality self governance anymore. What I fear is that is what is happening in the major populatiom centers of the lower 48.

    Ed note: I used maternalism here only to give the term paternalism a break. They both have the same meaning given that the state has had both male and female governors and Congresspersons.

  2. Is this village on Indian land, as in a reservation, however small? If so, Alaskan regulations do not apply.

  3. …a faro dealer like Wyatt Earp could become a famous law man by shooting the right people.

    What is wrong with being a faro dealer? Does that disqualify one from becoming a law man? Dealing cards give a fine insight into human nature. One would learn rather quickly when body language and tone indicated pending mayhem. These learned traits translate very well into LEO duties.

    Note that there was little or no training available for law enforcement outside of ‘on the job’ – sink or swim – was how one trained. Given the times, the only real qualifications for the job were character and intestinal fortitude.

    • Well, sure—but there was no guarantee that a faro dealer would be trustworthy, as Wyatt himself frequently proved. My favorite aspect of Earp’s weird life was this (from Wikipedia):

      Earp was a last-minute choice as referee for a boxing match on December 2, 1896 which the promoters billed as the heavyweight championship of the world, when Bob Fitzsimmons was set to fight Tom Sharkey at the Mechanics’ Pavilion in San Francisco. Earp had refereed 30 or so matches in earlier days, though not under the Marquess of Queensberry Rules but under the older and more liberal London Prize Ring Rules. The fight may have been the most anticipated fight on American soil that year. Fitzsimmons was favored to win, and the public and even civic officials placed bets on the outcome.

      Fitzsimmons dominated Sharkey throughout the fight, and he hit Sharkey with his famed “solar plexus punch” in the eighth round, an uppercut under the heart that could render a man temporarily helpless. Then, at Fitzsimmons’ next punch, Sharkey dropped, clutched his groin, and rolled on the canvas screaming foul. Earp stopped the bout, ruling that Fitzsimmons had hit Sharkey below the belt, but virtually no one witnessed the punch. Earp awarded the fight to Sharkey, whom attendants carried out as “limp as a rag”. The 15,000 fans in attendance greeted his decision with loud boos and catcalls. It was widely believed that no foul had occurred and that Earp had bet on Sharkey.Several doctors verified afterward that Sharkey had been hit hard below the belt, but the public had bet heavily on Fitzsimmons and they were livid at the outcome.

      Fitzsimmons went to court to overturn Earp’s decision, and newspaper accounts and testimony over the next two weeks revealed a conspiracy among the boxing promoters to fix the fight’s outcome. Newspapers across the United States republished the stories from the San Francisco papers and looked for local angles. On December 14, 1896, the San Francisco Call quoted a story from the New York Journal by Alfred H. Lewis, who accused the Earp brothers of being “stage robbers”, and Earp was parodied in editorial caricatures by newspapers across the country. Stories about the fight and Earp’s contested decision were distributed nationwide to a public that knew little of Wyatt Earp prior to that time.

      On December 17, Judge Sanderson finally ruled that prize fighting was illegal in San Francisco and the courts would not determine who the winner was. Sharkey retained the purse, but the decision provided no vindication for Earp. Until the fight, Earp had been a minor figure known regionally in California and Arizona; afterward, his name was known from coast to coast. The boxing match left a smear on his public character which followed him until he died and afterward. Eight years later, Dr. B. Brookes Lee was accused of treating Sharkey to make it appear that he had been fouled by Fitzsimmons, and Lee admitted that it was true. “I fixed Sharkey up to look as if he had been fouled,” he confessed. “I got $1,000 for my part in the affair.”

  4. Chris M. wrote: “Alaska is a state that doles out a dividend to every eligible resident. Those funds should be redirected to fund legitimate police officers.”
    Absolutely! The state has an ethical obligation to uphold and enforce it’s standards. Their current practices put them at least 40 – 50 years behind the rest of the nation. Unbelievable!
    Do these towns not face immense, unescapable civil (if not criminal) liability for employing crooks as police officers?
    Personally, I would look after myself and my own rather than trust such people to do the right thing.

  5. Hopefully these officers aren’t carrying firearms. Many of them would be prohibited persons and it is illegal for them to possess firearms and for anyone to transfer a firearm to them. Both offenses are federal felonies. This is the reason Berkeley, CA has hundreds of police positions it can’t fill. Berkeley can’t find officers who don’t use pot.

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