The Bethel City Council meeting on March 9 saw discussion from the public and from council members about the way the Bethel Police Department handles rape cases. Those who testified advocated for more responsible policing, and for timely handling of rape kits.
Local family advocate Anny Cochrane testified in the “people to be heard” portion of the meeting, saying that she’s sick of hearing about the Bethel Police Department being understaffed. “For years this is continuing on. We really can't allow our police departments to be so dramatically understaffed that they lose the ability to protect and serve the communities that need that,” said Cochrane.
“It really comes down to the basics. The Bethel police department has a responsibility to ensure that they maintain the public order and safety, enforcing law and preventing, detecting, and investigating the criminal activity,” Cochrane added, saying that because victims of rape really have no other agency to turn to in town, they need to be able to rely on the Bethel Police Department.
Ruth Miller also spoke up on the police issues, and suggested better council oversight. “I'm here tonight to speak about some serious concerns I have with the Bethel Police Department, and I heard a rumor that y'all were responsible for them,” said Miller in the statement that opened the meeting.
At the end of the meeting, during council member commentary, council member Mark Springer spoke at length. He said that Bethel City Council and its Public Safety Commission actually don’t have much purview over the Bethel Police Department, but he urged City Manager Pete Williams to look into alleged problems with rape kits.
“You know, we got some important public comment this evening about what is perceived by the public to be some issues with the police department. I hope that the city manager takes those concerns to the chief, who is his employee, and, you know, gets some explanation,” said Springer.
Council member Conrad “CJ” McCormick seconded what Springer had said.
“Moreover, I unfortunately also can sympathize with the rage that one might feel when justice is not served in situations like that, especially out here in rural Alaska. I know there have been a number of individuals who've been subjected to the horrible crimes, and really nothing has unfortunately been done about that,” expressed McCormick.
The council member and citizen comments come after recent allegations of improper handling of a local rape case, but the concerns seemed to go beyond a single incident. According to annual FBI data, Alaska has the highest sexual assault rate in the country at a rate of 147.8 assaults per 100,000 inhabitants. And Bethel’s rape statistics are among the worst in the state, with a rate of 718 assaults per 100,000 inhabitants. In 2019, Alaska saw double the number of rapes compared to Arkansas, the second-highest ranking state.
In an email, Police Chief Richard Simmons said he only knows of one complaint of mishandling. He also mentioned that the Bethel Police Department handled 54 reported sexual assaults and sexual assaults of minors in the last year alone. He wrote, “sad to say, but BPD is familiar with managing these cases.”