Senate Judiciary Committee probes spike in Anchorage crime
A troubling picture about the surge in Anchorage violence was painted for the Senate Judiciary Committee on Friday.
The hearing came at the request of the Senate’s Anchorage minority members, but Sen. Lesil McGuire, chairman of the committee and an Anchorage Republican, scheduled it.
Sen. Johnny Ellis thanked McGuire for carving out time to shine a light on Anchorage crime.
“I wouldn’t want anyone to think we’re not cognizant of the problems of domestic violence and crime and dysfunction all over the state — but today, thank you for the focus on the community we represent,” Ellis said. “And getting to the bottom of some of our particular problems, that could be a model instructive for the entire state.”
“It is unusual to focus on just one community. It’s the largest community in the state,” McGuire said, adding that Anchorage lawmakers have been flooded with email messages, phone calls and personal requests “from members of our community that are deeply concerned about their safety, their family’s safety.”
Jeff Bell, a veteran Anchorage police detective and vice president of the Anchorage Police Department Employees Association, told lawmakers there have been 33 shootings in Anchorage this year, with 10 homicides — all of them believed to be drug related.
Bell said seven of the homicides involved marijuana as well as other drugs — and four involved drug deals gone bad. He attributes the spike in crime to a shrinking department.
“We’ve gone essentially from a very proactive drug enforcement to a very reactive department, only responding to calls that are called in by the public.”
Bell told lawmakers the department hasn’t had the staffing to conduct officer-initiated investigations safely. He says this type of ongoing police work helps to keep drug violence in check.
The detective believes cuts to the Vice and the Special Assignment Units are partly responsible for the growing drug and gang violence in Anchorage.
The Vice Unit had 14 officers in 2010 and is now down to five, Bell said. The Special Assignment Unit, which had intelligence officers assigned to track gang activity, went from 17 to 7.
“We knew the players, the most violent people,” Bell said. “We knew where they lived, what cars they were driving. We knew their phone numbers. We knew their girlfriends.”
Bell said they even knew when drug parties were taking place and would add extra enforcement to keep violence in check.
The detective also provided sharply declining arrest numbers, which aren’t often included in other reports.
• 2009: 206
• 2014: 29
Driving Under the Influence Arrests
• 2009: 2,216
• 2014: 1,056
Liquor Law Violations Arrests
• 2009: 926
• 2014: 197
Under 21, Minor Consuming Alcohol Arrests
• 2009: 459
• 2013: 96
• 2009: 45,361
• 2013: 22,818
Calls for Service
• 2009: 296,636
• 2013: 239,765
Those declining arrest numbers could be interpreted to show crime is going down. But because of lack of manpower, Bell said, they demonstrate how police are losing a grip on controlling crime.
Of particular concern, Bell said, is the sharp drop in minors consuming alcohol arrests, important in steering teenagers away from more serious crimes.
“So we’ve taken our Vice Unit and our Special Assignment Unit and made them, kind of a term around the department, combat ineffective,” Bell said.
Sen. McGuire wanted to know why the arrest numbers don’t turn up in other reports.
Bell told the committee it’s hard to measure what crimes have been prevented by arrests. He said officers could, for example, arrest someone for a DUI — but there’s no way of knowing whether that arrest might have prevented the driver from killing someone on the highway.
Sen. Bill Wielechowski said he was troubled by the drop in the number of calls to the department for assistance. He wonders if it’s because the public has lost faith in the department.
“Just in talking with constituents in my district, they don’t even bother to call the police any more,” Wielechowski said. “I have people tell me they’ve called the police over four or five times over robberies, over break-ins, over shootings in their neighborhood, and they don’t even get anyone coming by.”
Police are no longer responding to certain crimes, Bell told the committee, as part of a reallocation of resources.
“In 2014, APD disbanded its theft unit, so there are no longer detectives assigned to thefts,” said Bell, unless the value of the property stolen is over $10,000.
Bell said theft unit detectives were reassigned to work on crimes against children, adult sex crimes and cyber crimes.
Property crimes have gone up from 10,316 to 12,032, between 2009 and 2013. In that same period, the number of forcible rapes reported jumped from 282 to 408.
McGuire said it was important to hear how the department’s priorities have shifted and the impact on the overall picture.
“Often what we do as lawmakers and a society, we’ll focus on something, sex trafficking as an example, we’ll build up resources towards that, but we might cut or neglect other areas,” McGuire said.
Bell believes the property crime increase was in large part due to the ability of the department to control drug crimes.
“According to the property crimes supervisor, in 85 to 90 percent of property crimes, there’s some kind of a drug nexus,” Bell said. “These people are committing these crimes so they can support the habit of drug use.”
Sen. Peter Micciche said the public’s frustration is understandable.
“The more we try to reduce funding, thinking these issues are going to magically go away, we’re going to start seeing these increases,” Micciche said. “And we’re going to see trends that we don’t like to see.”
Gary Folger, the commissioner of the Department of Public Safety, also weighed in. He said he worries about the impact of Anchorage crime on rural Alaska.
“What we see going on in the urban areas will eventually spread,” Folger said. “Drugs, it doesn’t matter.”
Folger also said changes in societal norms also affect crime rates.
Mayor Dan Sullivan testified via telephone from Anchorage and challenged some of the interpretation of the numbers.
He blamed a huge budget shortfall at the beginning of his administration in 2009 for the reduction in the police force.
But since then, Sullivan said, it’s been a priority to build the department.
Sullivan said there are police academies planned for May and November, as well as another one in 2016.
“We should be up around the 400-person level in terms of our sworn officers. That puts us on track towards our community policing goals,” Sullivan said.
Sullivan also said a smaller department does not necessarily mean a less effective one.
“I think the good news in this story, that even with the smaller police department, our overall trend is lower than the trend five years before we came into office, when there was more officers,” Sullivan said. “We’re a results-oriented organization here in the municipality.”
He also said the police department’s budget has grown considerably.
“In 2003, the budget for the department was $45 million. In 2014, the budget for the police department was $95 million,” Sullivan said. “So, in a period of time when inflation grew at about 30 percent, our police department budget more than doubled. So there’s been no lack of commitment monetarily to the police department.”
McGuire and other committee members said they’d like to follow-up on some of the issues raised at a future hearing.
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