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Park killings bring renewed interest in Anchorage Trail Watch program

  • Author: Devin Kelly
  • Updated: September 16, 2016
  • Published September 15, 2016

Trail watch ambassador Katie Hickey, photographed on Anchorage’s Chester Creek Trail on Thursday has been participating in the volunteer safety program since its inception. Hickey lives in Valley of the Moon and is a regular trail user. (Loren Holmes / Alaska Dispatch News)

In the summer of 2003, a woman was fixing a flat tire on her bike on Anchorage's Chester Creek Trail near Valley of the Moon Park when a man came up from behind and attacked her.

The woman, who was on her way to work, fought off the attacker but was badly beaten. Her case was one of five attempted sexual assaults along Anchorage's roughly 120 miles of paved trails that summer.

There was a public outcry. Mark Begich, then Anchorage's mayor, held a community forum. Not long after, the Trail Watch program was born, distributing vests and bright neon armbands to several hundred volunteer trail users who were asked to be the eyes and ears for police and trail maintenance crews.  

Forward to 2016: A double homicide in Valley of the Moon Park in late August triggered a similar series of events, and now there's a renewed interest in Trail Watch. The program has waxed and waned over the years, but at least a small pool of volunteers has always been available to help to clear brush and report homeless camps and suspicious activity along Anchorage's trails.

During at least two recent community meetings, residents alarmed by homicides and property crime peppered Mayor Ethan Berkowitz with questions about the program. Eva Gardner, an Anchorage lawyer who lives near Valley of the Moon Park and authored a widely circulated letter to the mayor about crime, said at the North Star Community Council meeting Wednesday that she had found the place to sign up online but couldn't tell if the program was active.

Gardner told Berkowitz she wanted a Trail Watch armband but didn't know how to get one.

"You'll have your armband," Berkowitz told her. "And we will make sure — I say that as a trail user — there need to be more people on the trail."

He added about the trail system, "This is an incredible part of Anchorage and we're not going to surrender it to anybody."

On Thursday, a city spokeswoman, Nora Morse, said the Berkowitz administration is planning to roll out a series of Trail Watch training sessions this month for anyone who wants to volunteer.

Morse couldn't immediately say how many people were signed up for the program and if applications have spiked in recent weeks. But she said that suddenly there was more interest.

On Sept. 15, 2003 — almost exactly 13 years ago — dozens of volunteers gathered at Westchester Lagoon to pick up neon-green reflective armbands and vests, paid for by private donations. What is now a Bean's Cafe coffee stand on the boardwalk by the lagoon was turned temporarily into the program's headquarters.

People signed up to patrol the areas of Westchester Lagoon, Valley of the Moon Park and the first few miles of the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail, starting from downtown. Others asked to go on the Coastal Trail between Earthquake and Kincaid parks.

"Ambassadors" wore vests and signed up to patrol segments of the trail at certain times. The rest were trail watchers with armbands, patrolling whenever and wherever they wanted.

A 15-minute training video posted on YouTube features city and police officials talking about the program and how volunteers should watch for and report crimes.

The video is now as much a cultural relic as an informative piece. Paul Honeman, then a police lieutenant before he was elected to the Anchorage Assembly, talks about avoiding the use of distracting devices, "such as personal Walkman-type radios, stereos." Honeman described the "cellphone process" as "a wonderful … flexible way to communicate," though he warned of places in town where reception was patchy — including some places still in a signal shadow.

One of the people who came to Westchester Lagoon for the 2003 kickoff was Katie Hickey, who still lives on 19th Avenue near Valley of the Moon Park. Hickey signed up to be an ambassador whose task was patrolling a stretch of the trail.

For a few years, Hickey rode her bike up and down the Chester Creek Trail between Westchester Lagoon and Goose Lake.

She recalls reporting homeless camps and stopping vandalism. She was stopped by a lot of people who wanted directions.

"I think just the visibility of having a presence on the trail made people feel better," Hickey said. "Essentially, our role was to be the eyes and the ears, and just deter crime by the fact we were out there."

She hasn't been involved in Trail Watch since the late 2000s. But Hickey signed up to be a member of a committee in the neighborhood near Valley of the Moon Park that will be looking into creating a community patrol.

In an interview, Heather Handyside, the communications director for the Begich administration when Trail Watch started, recalled the enthusiasm over the program. In 2003, amid alarm about safety on the trails, more than 250 volunteers signed up.

After the launch, Handyside moved on to other projects and the city parks and recreation department took over the program. She acknowledged the program has had trouble staying in the forefront.

"Like lots of other volunteer initiatives, when there's big community heightened awareness, heightened concern, people get engaged," Handyside said.

Handyside said a lot of ideas were circulating about ways to make Anchorage safer.

"I kind of hear a lot of the same thing going on right now as well," Handyside said.

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