In Nome, Alaska, a city of fewer than 4,000 residents that serves as a regional hub for dozens of smaller villages across western Alaska’s Bering Strait region, rape survivors and their supporters say the police department has often failed to investigate sexual assaults or keep survivors informed about what, if anything, is happening with their cases, the Associated Press reports. Survivors and advocates contend that police investigate less aggressively when sexual assaults are reported by Alaska Native women. More than half of Nome’s population is Alaska Native. All of its police department’s sworn officers are non-Native. Nome partly mirrors the national debate that has gained momentum amid sexual abuse scandals involving entertainers, Hollywood moguls and politicians.
The Nome story illustrates how a history of racial disparity and unacknowledged trauma has undermined efforts to address what the human rights group Amnesty USA calls an epidemic of sexual assaults against Native women. In 2013, Nome police received 33 calls about sexual assaults against adults. The department made one arrest on a sexual assault charge. Nome police fielded 372 calls about sexual assaults against adults from 2008 through 2017. During that span, only 30 cases led to arrests on sex charges. By comparison, a study of six police departments by researchers at the University of Massachusetts Lowell found that just under 19 percent of sexual assault reports led to arrests. Even that arrest rate raises questions about how seriously police agencies take sexual violence. Police agencies have been accused of failing to test DNA evidence gathered in thousands of rape cases, dismissing rape reports because officers believed victims did not “fight back” hard enough, and showing less concern about rape complaints from African Americans, Native Americans and other less powerful groups. In Nome, officials say low police staffing levels have made it difficult to respond to calls of all kinds.