Citing data error, Anchorage police reverse earlier statements on crime spike near downtown: 'It's legitimate'

An Anchorage police captain told a room full of South Addition residents last month that property crime in the neighborhood was "relatively flat" when theft reports were actually trending upward — a mischaracterization that stemmed from a software error, police say.

Capt. Justin Doll's appearance at the Sept. 15 meeting of the South Addition Community Council came amid heightened tensions over violent crime and property theft in areas surrounding Valley of the Moon Park, which had seen three homicides in two weeks.

At the meeting, Doll told several dozen people that data about property theft in the neighborhood showed a downward trend. At the time, the statements indicated how police were analyzing data and making decisions about where to dedicate resources.

But during and after the meeting, Doll got pushback from residents who felt property crime was actually on the upswing. Now, the captain says he would agree with the residents.  

Asked recently about the discrepancy, Doll said he'd since discovered that he came to the South Addition meeting with information that turned out to be inaccurate. A data summary he reviewed before the meeting was incomplete — the result of a software issue with the summary tool, discovered about a week and a half later, he said. 

Doll said he initially hadn't seen raw data that the department provided to Alaska Dispatch News, which was reproduced as a graphic with an article. The raw data, which Doll said was accurate, showed that in fact the number of theft, both property and vehicle, in South Addition through the first nine months of the year was about the same as the entirety of 2015 and 2014. In the category of burglary, those numbers exceeded the totals for either of the previous two years.

That would translate into increases of roughly 35 percent. Raw data for theft and burglary in the North Star neighborhood show a similar trend, with an even more significant jump in vehicle theft, a crime that has spiked all over Anchorage this year.

Doll, a member of APD's crime suppression unit, said he's since reviewed the raw data. He said if he could go to the South Addition meeting again, he would now say that theft in fact appears to be trending up, not down.

"It's legitimate, and what they're basically reporting back to us is validated," Doll said in a Monday interview.

Frustrations over crime in the area surrounding Valley of the Moon Park boiled over after two killings in the park in late August. In the month since, the administration of Mayor Ethan Berkowitz has re-invigorated the Trail Watch Program and advertised public safety resources like Neighborhood Watch, community patrols and the Green Dot violence prevention trainings.

At the Sept. 15 meeting, Doll tried to tamp down on resident concerns specific to property crime. He indicated there was mainly a perception of rising theft, though multiple people told him it wasn't a perception.

In a letter to the editor, published Sept. 25 in Alaska Dispatch News, Eva Gardner, an Anchorage lawyer who has helped spearhead community discussions on crime prevention in the past month, pointed out the discrepancy in APD's position on crime rates and the paper's interpretation of the data.

"If APD won't help, it could at least acknowledge we have a problem," Gardner wrote. "Instead, it attempts to justify its own inaction by (incorrectly) calling us paranoid."

Doll said the feedback he received led to the effort by the Anchorage Police Department's crime analyst to figure out what went wrong. The crime analyst contacted the software vendor and discovered the error, though it wasn't clear why it had happened, Doll said.

Doll said he couldn't remember ever using the summary tool before. He said that to his knowledge, the error hasn't been observed or reported in data summaries for other parts of the city.

Doll said crime fluctuates from year to year and he would still hesitate to categorize property crime in South Addition as a "massive increase." But he said that had he had accurate data, he would have made different statements at the September community council meeting.

"I have talked to some members from South Addition (and said), I will come back and correct this if necessary," Doll said. "I feel bad anytime we have information that's not 100 percent correct that we put out."

Doll said he doesn't have a specific plan for the department's next steps in the neighborhood.

But he said police are trying to get more involved with promoting programs like Neighborhood Watch, and encouraging crime reporting.

Police recommend Anchorage residents use the department's online reporting tool to report theft. Find the link here