The Anchorage Police Department is paying nearly $140,000 to change the locks on its entire fleet of patrol cars after someone broke into a city tire shop in early April and exposed a security weakness — some cop cars have the same keys.
Early in the morning on April 7, a burglar forced open the door to the tire shop on Fairbanks Street. When police officers responded to a report of the break-in at 2:51 a.m., there was stuff scattered everywhere, said Anchorage police spokesperson Jennifer Castro. Shelves, cabinets and drawers had been rummaged through.
About four cop cars were also in the shop, dropped off by officers with late shifts for a tire changeover, Castro said.
None of the keys to the patrol cars were ultimately stolen, Castro said. But in the initial shuffle, only one key was accounted for, she said. While city staff were putting the shop back together and running an inventory of the equipment, Castro said, police officials feared someone had gotten the keys.
That triggered a much bigger security problem: Different makes and models of APD cars share the same key.
For example, if someone stole a key to a 2005 Impala, that person could have access to all the 2005 Impalas in the fleet, Castro said. She said no one key fits all the patrol cars, but she said one key might fit as many as a dozen vehicles.
Castro said it took about two weeks to get "absolute confirmation" from the tire shop that none of the police vehicle keys had been stolen. But she said the decision to rekey the patrol cars made sense either way.
"Even if the keys are being found, we still have this vulnerability," Castro said. "That there's people out there where stealing one key could have access to multiple vehicles," including police radio equipment, computers and rifles.
News of the break-in and of the patrol car rekeying was first reported by KTUU Channel 2.
Castro said the burglar did take two sets of keys to city Parks and Recreation department vehicles. She said those keys have since been recovered, and the vehicles rekeyed.
On April 21, about two weeks after the break-in, Anchorage Mayor Ethan Berkowitz signed a waiver to the normal bid process that expedited the selection of a locksmith, according to documents submitted to the Anchorage Assembly this week.
"Delay could result in severe safety issues to both APD personnel and the public," city officials wrote in the memo to Berkowitz.
The contract, for $139,756, went to Able Locksmiths.
The 400 patrol cars that share common keys will now have unique keys, for both doors, ignition and trunk, Castro said.
Castro said police are still investigating the burglary and no one has been charged. She said police responded to nine other burglaries in Anchorage that same day, noting the city has generally seen a spree of property-related crimes in recent months.
City spokesperson Myer Hutchinson said the burglars took a few municipal-marked tools, including an air wrench and some well-worn mechanic's coveralls from the shop.
He said the total value was "well below $1,000."
Since then, the city has installed metal bars on the windows and altered the doors to make it more difficult to break in, Hutchinson said.
He said officials are looking at installing surveillance camera and alarm systems at street and fleet maintenance buildings, as well as different types of lighting.
Castro said it's the first time to her knowledge that the entire police car fleet has had its keys changed. She said she wasn't sure why the issue hadn't come to the department's attention before.
She called it a "small investment" to be made for peace of mind.
"If something ever even came close to happening like this in the future, we won't have to sweat it," Castro said.
The Assembly is expected discuss the bill and the locksmith contract at its Tuesday night meeting.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the date that Mayor Ethan Berkowitz signed a waiver to speed up the contract process. It was April 21, not April 2.