Mark Mew, who already has one career on the Anchorage Police Department under his belt, returns to the force as Anchorage's 29th police chief today.
In his previous stint, Mew was a patrolman, detective, SWAT team member and deputy chief. He completed the police academy in 1983. And because he's been gone from the department since 2003, when he left to become director of security and emergency preparedness for the Anchorage School District, he's been required to spend the past two weeks in a refresher course in Sitka, preparing to pin the badge on once more.
But traditional police work isn't something he's talking much about these days. Both he and the man who appointed him, Mayor Dan Sullivan, are indicating there could be a fundamental shift in department philosophy on the horizon.
The catch phrase they're talking about: "Community policing," an approach that aims to put police closer to the people in the city's neighborhoods and, the theory goes, make that relationship work to reduce crime.
"We want to do more of that kind of thing than what the police department's doing today," Mew, 55, said in a recent interview. "Now, how much of that we do right now, facing shrinking budgets, that's a big question."
Mew, whose appointment must still win Anchorage Assembly approval, has been on the community policing course before. He was deputy chief in the late 1990s, when the city was making a big push toward embracing the concept. The plan then divided the city into five districts, each operating under its own command. A central major crimes unit remained to investigate homicides, sexual assaults and crimes against children across the city. But many other detectives became general-purpose investigators in the districts, handling an array of lesser crimes from burglary and assault to forgery and theft.
Some of changes then were met with resistance in the department and have since been reversed. Now, Mew says, though nothing's been set in concrete, the city could change direction once more.
"We could get there. I don't know that we'll get there soon," Mew said. "There was a lot of strife associated with that. I'm not sure that we will want to take that step up front. We might reserve that discussion for later down the road. But I think we'd be interested in finding more ways to get patrol thinking about proactive work."
As the city wrangles with budget shortfalls in the millions, Mew, along with other city leaders, will likely be forced into cutting budgets, not introducing new programs. Mew says he'll look for ways to save on fuel, cut back overtime and stretch a roughly $89 million budget for the department of about 550 people, including roughly 400 sworn officers.
But in a department that's already seen dozens of positions cut, future shortfalls may mean more layoffs, he said.
Tough times will also make it difficult for the new chief to make drastic changes, and the department needs to focus on its core mission: responding to crimes and serving the public, Mew said.
But community policing is a concept Mew says can help make people feel safer and reduce neighborhood crimes -- from nuisances like graffiti and loud music to felonies like robberies and homicides.
Community policing, in one embodiment or another, has long been a push at APD, and there have been localized teams working toward that end. Right now, the department has a Community Action Policing team working in Spenard and Fairview. Its six officers, supervised by Sgt. Denny Allen, patrol the same streets and have gotten to know residents and business owners.
They tell police about the things that concern them -- for Allen's team, the problems are mostly inebriates, prostitution and street-level drugs -- but as residents get to know an officer, they're also more likely to share more important information, Allen said.
"That's the idea of what community policing is all about," Allen said. "How much of a work load have we taken off of calls for service? I would think probably quite a lot."
The broader potential changes being eyed now could have implications for the entire department. Sullivan, who appointed Mew to replace Rob Heun, characterized the push in the 1990s as the first true move toward community policing in Anchorage, and said the department seems to have gotten off it.
"What we're doing now isn't working well enough for my satisfaction," Sullivan said. "If you compare what (they) were doing in the mid-to-late-90s, and look at the crime rate and the resultant decline, and you look what's happened over the last five or six years with more generalized policing and our violent crime rate on the incline, it's clear that it's not particularly a question of resources, because we've added 90 police officers during that period. It's more a question of how do you deploy those resources."
Sullivan said the city plans to commission a deployment audit on the department, which, along with input from Mew, will tell Sullivan what needs to be done.
Perhaps the most contentious issue -- among detectives, anyway -- in the idea of community policing is the concept of general-purpose detectives working directly with patrol in specific geographic areas. Sullivan said he's undecided on the issue, that he'll let the experts, beginning with Mew, make a recommendation on whether it makes sense.
Mew also says he wants to talk to his commanders and get a feel for what they think. But he indicated he's not opposed to it.
De-specializing detectives and putting them under a single commander in separate districts with patrol officers allows them to get to know the neighborhoods and the people in it, Mew said. It also would allow a district commander to establish priorities for both patrolmen and detectives in the area -- something not possible when each group reports to a different commander -- and stay in tune with what the community wants from police, he said.
"It probably does make sense to keep specialization to some extent in the detective division," Mews said. "To what extent do we do it? I mean, that's the big debate."
Former Anchorage police chief Walt Monegan was one of the district commanders when the changes were made in the '90s. Then when he became chief a few years later, he reversed them. He says now that he supports community policing, but that there were some problems with the model the last time around.
Detectives working the same crimes in different districts weren't talking, and criminals weren't staying inside the district boundaries, he said. Detective sergeants tried to bridge the gap by meeting weekly to compare notes and try spotting similar cases.
Also, if a commander needed more manpower for a specific project, he would have to ask another commander, who was working on his own, unrelated project, Monegan said.
"On paper, it's a grand idea," Monegan said. "I wish them luck. I didn't think the concept was bad, I just don't think we were staffed and structured for the way that they wanted it done."
To be done right, in Monegan's estimation, community policing could require doubling the size of the department.
Community policing adds an extra dimension of police work to the job, said Sgt. Derek Hsieh, president of the Anchorage Police Department Employees Association. Officers still need to respond to crimes in progress and investigate crimes that have already happened, but they also have the added task of trying to prevent crime from happening in the first place, he said.
"With long-term community policing strategies, I think the desired outcome is that by engaging problems somewhat before they happen, that you could potentially realize efficiencies in the other two stages of law enforcement," Hsieh said. "But initially your commitment will have to be to all three stages simultaneously. And that obviously is demanding."
Assemblyman Mike Gutierrez said community policing can help reduce crime and foster trust in the police force. But the department needs a bare minimum of officers, and if it's not done right, it might jeopardize operations, he said.
"I worry that maybe if we change the focus there might be the temptation to say, 'Well, if we do it this way we need fewer police officers and therefore we don't need to spend as much money,' " Gutierrez said. "I think there's some real danger in that."
But community policing doesn't necessarily mean staffing changes, just deploying officers more effectively, said Sharon Chamard, associate professor at the University of Alaska Anchorage's Justice Center.
Decentralizing the department can allow officers to have more leeway dealing with situations and more time to understand and resolve the root cause of the crime, which reduces calls for service later, she said.
"The Anchorage Police Department for the most part is a reactive department," Chamard said. "I just feel really positive about this change in the department. I think it's moving the Anchorage Police Department into current-day policing that you see in other large cities. And I think it makes the department perhaps more receptive to innovations in policing."
Find James Halpin online at adn.com/contact/jhalpin or call him at 257-4589.