Alaska News

Residents confront mayor about Anchorage crime

Anchorage Mayor Ethan Berkowitz absorbed a barrage of complaints about crime from neighbors of Valley of the Moon Park when he made an unusual visit to a community council meeting Wednesday night.

It was the third such council visit planned for the mayor this week as residents grow tired of what they see as a crime boom. Berkowitz campaigned on a public safety platform, but if anything, concern has grown during his first year and a half in office.

Berkowitz's appearance at the North Star Community Council meeting was similar to an open-air meeting he held in Valley of the Moon Park last week. Two people were killed in the park in late August, triggering a letter from neighborhood residents that centered on fears about violent crime and property crime.

Then, on Tuesday, a man was shot and killed at 15th Avenue and E Street, two blocks from the park. Berkowitz is expected Thursday night to attend the South Addition community council meeting, which is the neighborhood where that killing took place. On Monday, Berkowitz attended the Mountain View Community Council meeting.

Anchorage mayors often send staff members to community council meetings, but it's not common for a mayor to go in person. Anchorage Assembly members and state lawmakers do regularly attend the meetings in person, and there were five at the North Star meeting Wednesday: Assemblymen Dick Traini, Tim Steele, Eric Croft and John Weddleton and state Rep. Harriet Drummond.

[Anchorage is on track to break the record for most homicides in one year. What's going on?]

During the meeting, Berkowitz said that he's trying to listen directly to neighborhood concerns. In his introductory remarks, he repeated many of the same comments he made at the meeting at Valley of the Moon Park last week, touching on efforts to increase police staffing and address broad problems with substance abuse.

He acknowledged neighborhood concerns about violent crime and about homeless camps that line the woods along the Chester Creek Trail. But he stressed that people should not conflate the two issues.

"Those are different sets of problems," Berkowitz said. "Those camps are not entirely homeless."

Resident Ross Timm, however, told Berkowitz that he was concerned about property crime being related to homeless camps in the area. He said people are frustrated that when police are called, there's no response.

Berkowitz reiterated his frequent point that the city's police department was pared down before he was elected. He said the city is also being hit by state cuts to social programs for drug and alcohol treatment.

Mike Benson, who said he'd lived in the neighborhood about 45 years, demanded to know when the police department would be fully staffed. Berkowitz didn't give an exact timeline, but said it takes 18 months for recruits to be trained, and many officers are in training now.

"If there's anyone in this room who wants to become a police officer, we're always taking applications," Berkowitz said, adding to Benson, "age is not a barrier, sir."

Then Amalie Loki, 9, stood in the middle of the aisle of chairs and faced Berkowitz.

"I think sometimes at night I get scared because I think … there could be somebody who's going to break into my house, because there's so many crimes across the street from my house," Loki told Berkowitz. "I feel like someone might come into my house."

From the front of the room, community council President Sam Moore said he agreed with her. There were other murmurs of agreement in the room.

Berkowitz looked at her.

"What I can tell you is what I tell my own kids," Berkowitz said. "Which is, make sure to say goodnight to your parents so they know where you are, stay in your bed, and make sure your parents have locked the doors."

He added: "The problems that exist in this city are mostly outside, and almost never come inside people's homes unless something else bad is happening there."

Loki came to the meeting with her twin brother, Jenson, her father, Xavier Schlee, and her mother, Jen Clark.

In a school writing assignment about what happened to him last week, Jenson said two people were shot in the park, Schlee said. He said Jenson also drew a picture of a bullet.

East Anchorage resident Eva Edwards noted the number of young people who had died in homicides this year. She wanted to know if a hotline could be set up that parents could call if they were worried about their child doing drugs or using alcohol.

Lt. Denise Rollins, who is in charge of the Anchorage Police Department's new "community relations" unit, said citizens should call APD's non-emergency number, 907-786-8900. She also said parents should contact school resource officers, or police officers in schools.

Edwards said she was more worried about people between the ages of 20 and 30. Berkowitz told her that's why his administration is trying to increase the number of officers in the police department so community policing can happen.

Rollins was also pressed by Ira Perman, an former Assembly candidate, on why Anchorage police weren't using the neighborhood social networking site Rollins said Anchorage police do not have the manpower to monitor full-time.

One man — who said he's a Bering Sea crabber and feels safer at work than in his own neighborhood — proposed that the city hire private security guards to deter crime, like in downtown Anchorage.

Berkowitz noted that those guards are funded through a special tax on downtown business owners.

"If any community is ready to specially assess itself, I'm sure there's a way that could happen," Berkowitz said.

Two hours after the meeting started, about 50 people were left in the room.

With a chorus of "ayes," the remaining council members unanimously voted to form a committee that would explore creating a community patrol, or a voluntary group of residents to patrol for crime.