A tense, worried crowd confronted Anchorage's mayor and police chief Thursday evening in an extraordinary outdoor meeting in Valley of the Moon Park, voicing fears about crime, homelessness and other concerns after two recent killings in the park.
The town hall-style meeting organized by Mayor Ethan Berkowitz was held in a pavilion not far from where Bryant "Brie" DeHusson, 25, and Kevin Turner, 34, were killed on Aug. 28. Anchorage is on track to break the record for homicides this year.
More than 100 people circled around the pavilion to ask questions of Berkowitz and Anchorage Chief of Police Christopher Tolley and also to make suggestions. Much of the concern appeared to be fueled by a lack of information about the deaths, as well as frustration about property crime and illegal camps in the woods near the trail system.
The gathering came about a week after more than 90 Valley of the Moon residents sent a letter to Berkowitz that pleaded for more police patrols on the trail system.
For an hour and a half, hands shot up in the air as people signaled that they wanted to speak to the officials.
"The lights, the lights aren't on. The lights and the street lamps on the trails aren't on," one person said "What happened to the trail-watch program?" asked another.
For the most part, Berkowitz and Tolley offered little more than their ears and broad reminders that people should watch out for themselves and for one another and report crimes or suspicious behavior. They also tried to emphasize that violent crime isn't often random, but that specific people are targeted by criminals who assault others.
Those who came to the meeting looking for information about open homicide investigations were disappointed. Several asked about rumors they heard that police were seeking a serial killer in at least some of the homicides .
"I cannot validate that rumor at this time," Tolley said in response to one question. To 34-year-old Lucinda Zamir, who repeated the assertion about a serial killer, he said: "The worst we can do is speculate."
Tolley also told Zamir, in a message often repeated Thursday night, to be aware of her surroundings and stay away from risky behavior like taking alcohol and drugs.
That wasn't a satisfying answer for Zamir, a nurse and native of Pennsylvania who moved to Anchorage a year ago. She left the meeting early and said she still felt nervous.
Berkowitz has said that the city will be stepping up patrols.
Berkowitz, in office a little more than a year, continued his campaign messages of increasing the police force and addressing a lack of substance abuse treatment in the city. He pointed to his administration's efforts to move people out of homelessness and to increase lighting and navigational materials on the trail system. He said the problems people were raising were complex and did not point to a single solution.
With a gun holstered to his hip, Paul Swetzof, a Turnagain resident, was critical of Berkowitz's broader discussion of homelessness and alcohol abuse.
"When you try to justify crime, it allows people to go ahead and do that crime," he told Berkowitz.
"We're not excusing crime," Berkowitz said later. "We're trying to understand it in hopes of reducing it."
One woman wanted to know what was being done about mail theft. Another suggested installing call boxes around the city. Berkowitz's chief of staff, Susanne Fleek-Green, sat at a nearby picnic table and took notes.
Several friends of DeHusson, one of the two victims in the Valley of the Moon killings, came to the meeting. Rosalyn Thompson, 26, told Berkowitz that she was frustrated to walk on the trail system after dark and find that streetlights weren't lit.
"We're going to make sure the lights are on," Berkowitz told her.
There were broad concerns about people camping illegally in the woods. City homeless coordinator Nancy Burke spoke briefly to explain legal restrictions over evicting camp residents with less than two weeks' notice.
George Shoogukuwrk, 64, a formerly homeless man, spoke up to say that people should not give money to panhandlers.
"It's not their fault, it's our fault," he said.
One man asked Tolley if there was a way for police and the Community Action Policing team, which posts eviction notices on homeless camps, to team up with neighborhood watch groups.
Tolley said that wasn't an easy proposition. But he said the Anchorage Police Department's Citizen Academy, which held its first session Wednesday night, would be a good foundation for anyone who was interested.
Anchorage lawyer Eva Gardner, who wrote the letter on behalf of Valley of the Moon-area residents that prompted the meeting, asked Berkowitz and Tolley what residents could do to help reduce crime.
She didn't get the specific answers she was hoping for, she said, though she noted Tolley's mention of the citizen academy. After the meeting, Gardner said she appreciated that the two officials showed up but had hoped there would be more concrete action.
Her next step will be to attend next week's North Star Community Council meeting next week, her very first. The mayor is also expected to attend.