Best of the States

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Going to extremes to tell the story of sexual violence and shortcomings of enforcement

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In western Alaska, rape survivors and their supporters say Nome’s police department has often failed to investigate sexual assaults, especially when the victims are Alaska Native women. AP freelance correspondent Victoria Mckenzie verified these claims with shoe leather source reporting and by obtaining key law enforcement and hospital records. Nome police data show that from 2008 through 2017 just 8% of calls about sexual assaults against adults resulted in an arrest.

Through powerful photos and text, Mckenzie and enterprise photographer Maye-E Wong told a story that hasn’t gotten much attention amid the celebrity-driven sex scandals of the #MeToo era – how average Americans in small communities are struggling with issues of sexual violence and law enforcement. The story made clear that Nome’s struggles don’t represent an isolated case; it is a microcosm of how police and towns and cities across the U.S. have failed survivors of sexual assaults.

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A snow-encrusted sign marks the entrance to the police station on a tundra road on the outskirts of Nome, Alaska, Feb. 21, 2019. – AP Photo / Wong Maye-E

This was an immensely challenging story to report and photograph. The only way to get to Nome – and get from Nome to surrounding villages – was by costly flights. Key sources for the story were people who had suffered profound trauma,not only because of actual assaults but also because,they said,of official indifference. Getting them to talk,and to allow themselves to be photographed,required extensive reporting,networking and emotional intelligence.

Mckenzie moved to Nome for three months,renting a room in a mobile home during a time when temperatures there were as low as minus-29 degrees. In all,Mckenzie interviewed more than 150 people,including sexual assault survivors and their family and friends,police,politicians,bureaucrats,Native Alaska leaders,cultural and law enforcement experts and others. Wong,who ultimately joined Mckenzie in the same accommodations,grappled with many of the same challenges that Mckenzie faced, portraying with sensitivity a victim of assault while vividly capturing the flavor and harsh cnditions of western Alaska in February.

The story received more than 350 online pickups from customers,nearly 15,000 Facebook engagements and more than 60,000 views on AP mobile and APnews.com.

For going to extremes – literally and figuratively – to shed light on a remote corner of the national and global issue of sexual violence and enforcement, Wong and Mckenzie share this week’s Best of the States award.

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