Reported property crimes in Anchorage, including vehicle theft and burglary, rose sharply last year, but did not hit the peaks they reached in the 1980s and early 1990s.
The data is part of a yearly effort to track crime in every state known as the Uniform Crime Report. Researchers caution that it is far from perfect, but it represents the most complete, available and up-to-date measure of how much crime is reported in cities around the country.
At a time when business owners, lawmakers, community councils and everyday residents of Alaska's largest city are filling meetings and online forums with their frustrations over the perception of a citywide crime wave, the numbers illustrate the long view of how crimes of theft have ebbed and flowed over 30 years in Anchorage.
Such data is valuable for the story it tells about fluctuations of crime over time, said Anchorage Police Department Deputy Chief Sean Case.
The big takeaway: Property crime rates have been on the rise in several categories for years. In most cases, rates are rebounding from all-time lows reached in the mid-2000s and early 2010s.
And theft rates were much higher 20 or 30 years ago — when Anchorage had a smaller population — than they are today.
The data comes from information reported to the Federal Bureau of Investigation through the Alaska Department of Public Safety. Brad Myrstol, a University of Alaska Anchorage professor and director of the Alaska Justice Information Center compiled the data and helped interpret it.
There's one very important caveat about the data, said Myrstol: It represents crimes reported to the Anchorage Police Department but does not reveal anything of which cases were ultimately prosecuted or led to convictions. Some categories of crime are under-reported, Myrstol said.
Burglary rates per 100,000 people were highest in 1985 and bottomed out in 2011. They've been rising ever since. Case said police have seen a clear link between increases in burglaries and vehicle thefts: "We see stolen vehicles used in commission of a burglary," he said.
Motor vehicle thefts in Anchorage hit an all-time high around 1994, just before crime rates in Alaska and nationally began to fall. The APD is looking at factors that may have driven that spike for insights into the current wave of vehicle thefts, said Case. Reported thefts also hit a low in 2011. A pronounced rise began in 2015.
Shoplifting reports in Anchorage spiked in the late 1980s, tumbled down and hit a low around 2004. Reports actually fell from 2015 to 2016. Whether that's because fewer people are shoplifting or business owners aren't reporting it as often is unclear.
Larceny theft rates haven't seen highs and lows as dramatic as some other property crime categories. But they too hit highs in the late 1980s and mid 1990s in Anchorage, falling until around 2004 and then modestly rebounding. Rates increased between 2015 and 2016.
What the data does not begin to answer is questions about the drivers of crime, or how police should best tackle it, said Sean Case, the deputy police chief.
"The number itself, though interesting, does not tell me where to put police officers, or if I should change my investigative strategy," he said. "There's a narrative that goes along with that data, and it's extremely labor intensive to figure out what that narrative is."
What's does Case think is the narrative behind Anchorage's current unfolding crime?
"The connection for us is drugs and property crimes," said Case. "Drug and property crime usually leads to violent crime. But there's always drugs involved somehow," Case said.