Police identify larger number of gang members in Southcentral

CONFIRMED: Official number is 237; the high might be 1,000.

December 29, 2008 

Documented gangs in Anchorage continue to swell, even as anti-gang officials pledged Monday to continue their 2-year-old effort to combat youth violence in Southcentral Alaska.

To date, police have identified 112 suspected gangs in Anchorage operating with as many as 1,000 members. Of those, 49 gangs have been validated, including 237 confirmed members.

Those numbers are up significantly from past counts. For example, a report police released in late 2007 described 22 confirmed gangs with 150 validated members. In 2006, police counted roughly a dozen known gangs with about 115 validated members.

However, Anchorage police chief Rob Heun said Monday that the increase does not necessarily mean there are more gangs, only that police are better at identifying them.

"We're becoming more sophisticated in the way we're looking at things," Heun said. "For instance, we're going back into old reports that we've done and we're vetting those to see if it involved gang activity. Let's put it into context: We've had 12 homicides this year; none of them have been gang-motivated."

Also, the special assignment unit responded to 755 suspected gang-related incidents in the past year, but only about a quarter actually involved gang members, Heun said.

Stemming such numbers is the purpose of the Tri-Borough Anti-Gang and Youth Violence Policy Team, which pledged Monday to continue the fight in Anchorage and the Mat-Su and Kenai Peninsula boroughs in coming years using preventive measures like mentors, after-school programs and school resource officers.

Dean Williams, superintendent of McLaughlin Youth Center, said the agreement will help prevent high-risk youths, like those expelled from school, from falling through the cracks.

"Sometimes, problems exist on the fringes of several agencies," Williams said. "Alone, they don't have the jurisdiction or maybe they don't have the expertise to deal with those particular problems."

The mission also entails cracking down on youthful offenders. That has included naming two prosecutors to focus on youth crime and creating a state gang prosecutor position, Anchorage District Attorney Adrienne Bachman said.

Already, the team counts among its successes 81 federal indictments on gun and weapons charges that resulted in 48 convictions and sentences totaling more than 326 years.

Overall cost estimates were not immediately available, but some portions can be pricey. For example, the team responsible for the federal indictments cost about $380,000 split between the city and the U.S. Department of Justice.

"I think we would have seen more crime on the streets in regards to gangs, guns and drugs if we didn't have that strong prosecution," Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich said. "When they find out very quickly they're going away for a long time, that spreads on the street very quickly."

Officials said they plan to keep costs down by sharing or redeploying existing resources.

"We're looking at low cost and no cost solutions," said Tom Begich, mayoral brother and with United Way of Anchorage. "If we can keep these kids off the street, that savings is virtually incalculable."

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