VPO accused of raping teen previously celebrated at AFN

A substitute village police officer from the dry village of Selawik is in jail in Nome awaiting trial. Brent Norton is charged with supplying alcohol to a minor and raping her while she was unconscious. The 16-year-old girl was found dead hours later.

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One month earlier Norton received an award at AFN for his dedication to public safety. His case brings up important questions about how VPOs are vetted in villages throughout the state.

Brent Norton, a substitute village police officer from Selawik was presented with a President’s Award at the Alaska Federation of Natives convention in Anchorage this October.

Norton was recognized for his response to a shooting in Selawik this summer. At that time, he had less than six months of experience, but was first on the scene. While a victim died from gunshot wounds, Norton risked being shot at to retrieve the body.

“The Glen Godfrey Law Enforcement Award is given to Alaska Native law enforcement officer who has shown outstanding dedication to the safety of the public in Alaska,” says an announcer at AFN. “The Glen Godfrey Law Enforcement Award Putumiu Brent James Norton from Selawik.”

One month later, 29-year-old Norton allegedly supplied a 16-year-old girl with alcohol and later had sex with her while she was unconscious.

According to an article published by the Arctic Sounder, the Selawik Clinic received a call from Norton just before 1 a.m. on Nov. 18.  Norton described the girl as cold and not breathing. Emergency responders spent twenty minutes trying to resuscitate her before she was declared dead.

But Norton’s record was far from clean prior to this year.

In 2006 he was arrested and pleaded guilty for transporting alcohol to a dry village. He was arrested for the same charge again in 2012. In June of this year he was charged with giving alcohol to a 13-year-old girl.

So how did a man with a record for importing and supplying alcohol to minors get hired as a substitute VPO in the dry village of Selawik? Chris Hatch, program coordinator for Village Public Safety Officers in the Northwest Arctic Borough explains.

“According to Alaska statutes, only a village can hire a village police officer. They’re the only ones who can hire a VPO.”

To be clear a VPSO, which is what Hatch oversees, is different in many ways from a VPO. A VPSO goes through extensive training and vetting compared to what a VPO is put through. But, there are some safeguards in place.

According to the statutes Hatch mentioned, a person with misdemeanor convictions in the last 10 years will be “judged on his or her moral character, at the council’s discretion.” A person convicted of a felony in the last 10 years is ineligible. The incident in February of this year, in which Norton supplied alcohol to a minor was a Class C Felony. But he was a substitute VPO, so under ever less scrutiny.

“So what happens in a lot of communities, is they hire a VPO and then they’ll hire someone to fill in,” Hatch explains. “So you have a guy who works 20-30 hours a week, but when he leaves for some reason they have someone to fill in for him. In this case, they’re calling him a substitute VPO.”

While VPOs must pass a background check, the hiring of substitutes is at the discretion of the village. The city of Selawik had no comment for this story. Neither did AFN regarding Norton’s award.

According to his introduction at this year’s AFN conference, Norton’s reputation outshone his record….

“Residents describe him as dedicated to helping and he is known for his courteousness and kindness. He is an example of responsibility, courage, and respect.”

Norton’s involvement in the death of Selawik teen will add another felony to his record if he’s convicted. He’s being held at the Anvil Mountain Correctional Center in Nome, with bail set at $50,000.

Emily Russell is the voice of Alaska morning news as Alaska Public Media’s Morning News Host and Producer.

Originally from the Adirondacks in upstate New York, Emily moved to Alaska in 2012. She skied her way through three winters in Fairbanks, earning her Master’s degree in Northern Studies from UAF.

Emily’s career in radio started in Nome in 2015, reporting for KNOM on everything from subsistence whale harvests to housing shortages in Native villages. She then worked for KCAW in Sitka, finally seeing what all the fuss with Southeast, Alaska was all about.

Back on the road system, Emily is looking forward to driving her Subaru around the region to hike, hunt, fish and pick as many berries as possible. When she’s not talking into the mic in the morning, Emily can be found reporting from the peaks above Anchorage to the rivers around Southcentral.

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