Clarice Hardy couldn’t remember much about that night in March 2017, except that she felt “woozy” at the local bar where she had been hanging out. She didn’t know how she got home, just that she got there. She would only learn that she had been sexually assaulted the next day, when friends told her they had seen a video of what happened on Snapchat.
But she was a 911 dispatcher and felt like she knew what to do next. Reporting the assault, which can be daunting for many victims, was a matter of talking to her colleague, then-Lieutenant Nick Harvey, at the Nome Police Department, where they both worked. Hardy trusted Harvey when he said that he would open an investigation and file for a warrant. “He definitely made me feel like he was doing his job,” Hardy told The New Republic. “Just the way that he assured me that he was working on it—I believed him.” When she found out that it had reportedly all been a lie—that there was never a report or an investigation—she thought that would be the worst of what had already been a traumatic year. Then she found out she wasn’t the only one.
On Thursday, the Alaska branch of the American Civil Liberties Union announced a lawsuit filed on Hardy’s behalf against the city of Nome and two members of its police department, including Harvey. The lawsuit is the latest in a series of criticisms leveled against the NPD by Alaska Native women, who say that law enforcement has not taken the violence they face seriously. The department has come under fire for an alleged routine practice of disregarding Alaska Native women’s reports of assault.
In one case, a woman told the Associated Press that Harvey attempted to stop a nurse from performing her rape kit exam after the alleged perpetrator told him that the encounter had been consensual. “The Officer stated that he was going to cancel the exam because he had already talked to the suspect and the man admitted that he ‘had sex’ with the patient but that it was consensual,” the nurse wrote in the report, as reported by the AP. “Therefore the officer did not see a need for an exam.” In another case, a woman told the Anchorage Daily News that nothing happened after she went through an interview about her assault with an officer in Nome. “That was the first and last time I heard [from] them,” she said.
Like many issues in Indian Country, invisibility among the American public is a major obstacle to justice. But Hardy wasn’t invisible to the NPD. She knew her colleagues—was supposed to be one of them. That still didn’t protect her.
Hardy’s case is many things—unfair, a reminder of the risks involved in taking on sexual violence. It’s also disturbingly normal.
Sitting between the western Alaskan tundra and the Bering Strait and only accessible by sea or airplane, Nome is a city home to 3,866 people, roughly 58 percent of whom are Alaska Native. In the suit against the city, the ACLU’s lawyers laid out the skewed system that resulted from the majority of Nome’s elected positions of power being occupied by non-Natives: Between 2008 and 2018, Nome’s sexual assault report rate clocked in at six times the national average; within this troubling statistic lies the fact that just 8 percent of the reported assaults in that time resulted in arrests. The national rate is closer to 20 percent. And while there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that diversifying police departments alone does not wholly solve issues that are systemic in nature, NPD has long been led by white officers and people outside the community while serving a majority Alaska Native community.
According to the lawsuit, soon after Hardy reported her assault, Harvey had her write up a report and recount both the assault and the potential witnesses who had seen the video. The lieutenant then promised her that he would begin an investigation and obtain a “Glass” warrant—used to approve the electronic seizure of private conversations like the Snapchat video. That’s when the waiting began.
Hardy checked in with Harvey in April and then again in July to receive updates on the investigation. In both instances, according to Hardy, he pointed the blame elsewhere, claiming the warrant was taking longer than expected to secure. Trusting him that some investigations take longer than others, Hardy said she was content waiting on Harvey. They were colleagues, after all.
Then, in March 2018, a call rang into dispatch. Fielding it, Hardy was shocked when the caller revealed himself as the same man she had reported for rape a year earlier, who was asking for help to look for his son. After she hung up, she cried at her desk, prompting an NPD sergeant to check in on her. When she informed him of the situation and of Harvey’s purported investigation, the sergeant alerted Chief of Police John Papasodora. According to the suit, he assured her he would check with Harvey on the status of the investigation but also asked her to submit a second written report. Papasodora eventually told her he would recommend the case be overseen by the Alaska State Troopers. (When Hardy contacted them in 2018, they revealed that they never received a report from the Nome police.) Papasodora, according to the ACLU suit, also never told Hardy the truth: Harvey had never opened an investigation.
When Harvey realized that Hardy had spoken to Papasodora, his interactions with her in the workplace became hostile, according to the suit. The boiling point came in May 2018, when Harvey, fresh off a community meeting with Alaska Native women who were speaking out against the NPD’s lackluster work, allegedly told Hardy that he had “just got done dealing with those cunts.” Four days later, Hardy made a request to Papasodora to be placed on administrative leave so she could seek counseling.
That September, Hardy decided to go public with her own case, speaking at a community meeting focused on the police department’s failures.
“I was encouraged by my brothers and sisters to just go check [the meeting] out,” Hardy said. “My sister said, ‘You don’t have to speak, you could just sit and see if that would help, for me to speak up.’ And it did. A lot of people thanked me and encouraged me and appreciated that I spoke up and talked about my experience.”
Hardy’s lawyer, Stephen Koteff, added that Harvey was in attendance at the meeting and walked out after listening to Hardy’s account. Come October, still dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms she says she was experiencing and unable to return to work, Hardy was let go by the police department. She has since moved back to her home, the Native Village of Shaktoolik, which she calls “the best decision to keep me going forward.”
Harvey resigned in 2019, while Papasodora left the department after his contract expired in October 2018. Neither could be reached for comment. (Nome’s city manager declined to comment on the lawsuit, saying they had not reviewed it yet. NPD’s interim chief did not respond to my request for comment.)
Papasodora was replaced as chief in September 2018 by Robert Estes, a white Virginia transplant who brought investigators Bob Pruckner and Jerry Kennon up north with him to turn the department around. Upon taking the job, Estes began an audit of sexual assault cases dating back to 2005. Looking at the 182 cases under Papasodora, the audit found that 41 percent of the reports that came in between 2015 and 2018 were “inadequately investigated,” according to the lawsuit, and a quarter of them needed to be reinvestigated. Of those Papasodora-era reports, more than 90 percent came from Alaska Native women.
The lawsuit suggests that these staggering inequalities were caused by both Papasodora and Harvey’s disdain for the Alaska Native community and by the department and the city’s long-standing failure to properly train its officers in how to handle sexual assault cases.
After just a year on the job, Estes revealed that the investigators he brought with him had both left the department, reverting the 20 cases under audit back to cold cases. “We don’t have the personnel to investigate it now. So, they’re stopped,” Estes said at the time. “They’re going to be basically cold case[s] right now.”
In a meeting in October 2019, Estes presented the Nome city council with a 59-page report stating that he needed substantial increases in both resources and staff in order to correct the systemic issues in the department and make headway on the closed cases. The city denied his request, and Estes resigned the next day. While he did not cite a specific reason for his decision, in his resignation letter, Estes wrote that “the department’s loss of personnel in the past year alone continues to be a challenge on the backlog of cases.”
The failure of that reform effort is why Hardy is now moving forward with a lawsuit. As she and Koteff explained on Thursday, shortly after it was announced, the aim is not to seek monetary compensation for the traumatic damage caused by Harvey and the department’s lack of action, but to publicize the long-standing issues in the community and bring about sustainable change in the NPD.
Koteff pointed to the police department in Missoula, Montana, as an example of the kind of reform they’re hoping to spur. In 2013, the Department of Justice announced a settlement following a 2012 investigation that found the department discriminated against women in its handling of rape investigations. In the time since, training protocols have been installed and centered for both responding officers and prosecutors, facilities have been updated to create more welcoming environments for victims, and rape kits no longer stack up like they used to.
The difference is that Missoula is a city of over 73,000 citizens, 91 percent of whom are white. Travel eight hours to the east, to the Fort Peck Reservation, or another two to the Fort Berthold Reservation in North Dakota, and the story is one much closer to that of Hardy and Nome—a fraying trust between Native women and a legal system that has for decades allowed repeat offenders to walk free in small communities, continuing a cycle of trauma.
Just as with the adjacent Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women crisis that has gripped Native and Alaska Native communities across the country, there is no single solution that will bring about all the necessary overhauls immediately to the hundreds of communities that need them. But the one thing that is clearly needed in every one of these communities is a police force that feels—and is held—accountable to the Indigenous women it has long ignored. Hardy’s lawsuit won’t fix all of Alaska or Indian Country—no single lawsuit could—but for the women of Nome, it is a crucial and overdue start.
“The scariest thing about the whole experience was being silent, feeling alone and helpless—days of not sleeping,” Hardy said. “Going forward with the case, I don’t ever want anyone to go through that experience that I went through. Nobody—nobody on this earth—deserves to go through that.”