BETHEL - The Bethel City Council has voted to hire an independent investigator to review the city’s response to allegations of sexual assault in this hub community in Southwest Alaska.
The vote on Tuesday came after Bethel resident Juanita Nick reported to police that she was sexually assaulted last year. Nick said it took local police over seven hours to respond to her call and that officers did not pick up her sexual assault kit until 34 days after it was administered.
The Associated Press does not normally name victims of sexual assault, but Nick in March publicly protested against what she called the inappropriate action by Bethel police. She later recorded her story and sent it to KYUK Public Media.
In the weeks that followed, Bethel residents and some city council members expressed concern about her case, but board member Mark Springer said the council has little authority over the police department.
The council on Tuesday directed the city administration to hire an independent investigator to evaluate sexual assault cases reported in Bethel.
The independent investigator the council has recommended for the hire is Rachel Gernat, a former sex crimes prosecutor, KYUK reported. The city’s administration is drafting a resolution to hire Gernat to review the city’s response to sexual assault reports. The city council will consider that resolution on April 13.
Gernat has worked in the city and other communities in Alaska for nearly 15 years and has served on the statewide sexual assault training team, the outlet reported.
“I’m very well versed in helping law enforcement and other community partners write policies and procedures related to the investigation of sex assault cases, with an eye toward doing a proper investigation,” Gernat said.
Gernat said she would make recommendations about how the city could improve its processes and would also provide training for community partners involved in sexual assault response, the outlet reported.
Bethel Police Chief Richard Simmons said he supported the city council’s decision to hire an independent investigator. Simmons added that aside from the delay, his department handled Nick’s case through proper channels.
“I think ultimately what you’ll find is even with the delay in picking up the kit, the case itself is a solid case, and it’s exactly where it needs to be,” Simmons said.
The Bethel police chief said that the department has already put in place new measures to improve its handling of sexual assault cases. For example, he said his officers now periodically call the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corp. to check if there are any sexual assault kits that need to be picked up.
“We now have an automated process that we call over regardless of what we may or may not have over there,” Simmons said. “We call twice a week just to make sure, and then we’ll swoop in and get it if we have something.”
Simmons also said that because the city has a shortage of police officers and a high number of police calls, delays are inevitable.
“When we only have two officers on and nobody is doing follow-up on investigations because your investigators are taking care of 911 calls, then these investigations are going to drag out, sometimes for months,” Simmons said.