The number of serious criminal offenses reported in Anchorage dropped last year, according to newly released crime statistics, with two exceptions: rapes and burglaries. And while Alaska's largest city grew by more than 100,000 people during the last 30 years, there were fewer total crimes reported in 2011 than in 1981.
The FBI's Uniform Crime Report data for Anchorage, presented to news media in a series of charts and graphs Wednesday by Mayor Dan Sullivan's staff, are a measure of what the FBI calls "Part 1" crimes. Those include murder, forcible rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, motor-vehicle theft, and larceny and theft. The statistics are based on calls for police assistance, which are then verified and categorized after the fact by the Anchorage Police Department.
Overall, Part 1 crimes dropped in Anchorage about 6 percent last year, according to the report. But one notable category did not.
From 2010 to 2011, the number of forcible rapes rose from 264 to 283, the most in the past three decades. The data show the actual rate of rape per 100,000 residents has remained about the same as it has been for the last 10 years, indicating that rapes have increased fairly evenly with Anchorage's population. Still, that statistic shows a dark side to the city that has caught the attention of city officials, said Police Chief Mark Mew.
"We asked ourselves, 'What can we do here? What are we doing wrong? What could we do better? Other than just working cases and trying to make cases, what can the Anchorage Police Department do?" Mew said. "I don't know if we have a total answer yet."
Many of the initiatives the police department has put into place since January involve better education for potentially vulnerable women, Mew said. That's everything from posting informational newsletters in restrooms at restaurants and bars -- the so-called "Potty Press" -- to setting up a new website with rape-prevention and response tips, Mew said.
In Anchorage, rapes tend to occur or are initiated downtown and involve over-consumption of drugs and alcohol, Mew said.
"If we can work on those two conditions, we may be able to make some secondary reductions in sexual assaults. That would also probably bear on our other two goals, being (reducing) domestic violence and the issue of traffic fatalities," Mew said. "We're paying a lot of attention to alcohol abuse these days."
The police chief said he's also looking for fresh ideas on battling rape from detectives, patrol officers and social service agencies.
Working to drive down substance abuse rates, if successful, will likely also reduce other violent crime, such as murder, said both Chief Mew and Mayor Sullivan. According to police, the number of murders and non-negligent homicides in Anchorage dropped from 14 in 2009 to 13 in 2010 and 12 in 2011. The data show a decreasing trend in recent years from the early 2000s.
So far in 2012, Anchorage has seen 14 homicides, and all but two of those have been solved, police said.
"One homicide is too many," Mew said. "I don't know what the rest of the year holds. Obviously that's a number we watch closely and are concerned about it."
Sullivan said the 2011 data showing the city with its lowest crime rate in 30 years was "an amazing statistic."
"That really is a significantly good trend," Sullivan said. "We like these trends. We know there's still a lot of work to do."
As for the perception of crime in Anchorage, Sullivan said most people he's talked to feel it is a "fairly clean and safe" city. There may be a "ripple effect" of angry letters and calls from time to time when high-profile crime is in the news, he said.
"Overall, the numbers really speak for themselves," Sullivan said.
But according to criminologist and University of Alaska Anchorage professor Brad Myrstol, the statistics released Wednesday only reflect one set of sometimes skewed information: crimes police know about.
"Most crimes are never reported to police," Myrstol said. "You just have to recognize that the frequency with which people report crimes to the police is highly variable by crime type."
For example, vehicle thefts are the most-often reported crimes, Myrstol said. Rape, though, is the most under-reported crime, he said. National studies have estimated that police are notified of only 20 to 25 percent of rapes and that college-aged women are the least likely to report a rape, Myrstol said.
"That's why we use victimization surveys," he said. "(They) directly sample people and ask them what happened to them. And we can actually measure how often they report it to police."
Doing such surveys locally is something the police are looking into, said Mew.
Myrstol, echoing the mayor, said Anchorage residents might perceive crime rates to be higher than they really are because of splashy news coverage of violent crime and other gruesome depictions in TV shows and movies.
"In reality, the most egregious forms of violent crime are rare events. We're talking on the magnitude of dozens per hundreds of thousands," Myrstol said. "But people, in forming their concepts of safety, they find little comfort in statistics."
Reach Casey Grove at email@example.com or 257-4589.
FBI 2011 Preliminary Uniform Crime Report
Charting Anchorage crime trends
By CASEY GROVE