Responding to criticism from state legislators earlier this week that his administration wasn’t doing enough to deal with illegal camps, Mayor Ethan Berkowitz said that Anchorage’s trails are safe even though the city has been left to fend for itself on complicated problems the state has traditionally helped with.
“Unfortunately we’re having to contend with a retreat from Juneau,” Berkowitz said. “A lot of issues we’re dealing with now are the state’s failure to get things done in the past with mental health, drug and alcohol treatment.”
The city’s strategy of clearing out homeless camps by zones on the trail is working, Berkowitz said. He said residents can expect to see more bike patrols and camp cleanups in the coming weeks.
Nine Alaska legislators sent a letter to Berkowitz earlier this week that suggested the city could be more aggressively clearing public land, though city officials said the letter didn’t offer realistic solutions.
The letter came in the wake of two high-profile weekend incidents involving gunfire close to the Chester Creek trail, one of Anchorage’s most well-known recreational thoroughfares.
On Saturday, someone reported hearing gunshots in Chester Creek Park. Police later chased down and arrested a 24-year-old man who had been spotted in an illegal camp with a silver handgun, according to charging documents. The man told police he ditched the weapon, and it was never found.
Sunday evening, 18-year-old Thomas Williams was killed and a juvenile severely wounded in a shooting in the woods near Sullivan Arena. Police arrested a 12-year-old boy Wednesday in connection with the shooting, which they said apparently began as a fight near the Sullivan Arena sports fields.
Berkowitz said the Sunday shooting appeared to have more to do with “the times we live in” than conditions on the trails or in Anchorage.
“The more we can do to teach our children to be respectful to one another and to settle their disagreements in peaceable ways, the better off we’re going to be," Berkowitz said.
Berkowitz also defended the city’s efforts on homelessness and illegal camp cleanups. He spent the first part of the week at a homelessness conference in Houston, Texas, looking at different ways to pay for homeless services.
He walked from his home in Westchester Lagoon to his office in City Hall on the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail on Wednesday morning, he said. Berkowitz also frequently rides his bike on the Chester Creek trail. He said the city’s efforts to cut back brush have made it easier to see camps, and he’s been seeing fewer of them, though frustration with camps is commonly voiced on social media platforms like Nextdoor.
Since last year, the city has tested clearing entire “zones” of the Chester Creek trail and storing the belongings of campers.
The circumstances around the Sunday shooting and the Saturday arrest had nothing to do with the trail or trail users, based on the information gathered so far, Anchorage Police Chief Justin Doll said Wednesday.
“It happened to be there but it’s not something that trail users need to be concerned about,” Doll said.
Berkowitz has often said that the state is not fulfilling obligations to provide mental health and drug and alcohol treatment at facilities like the Alaska Psychiatric Institute. He said the city was “happy to work with anyone who is able to contribute toward solving the problem,” including state lawmakers.
Berkowitz said state legislators sent the letter to reporters before he saw it.
“I don’t think I was the intended audience,” Berkowitz said.
During a tour of Alaska this past week, U.S. Attorney General William Barr announced that Anchorage was one of 10 cities selected for a public safety initiative focused on violent crime. The Anchorage Police Department sought out the grant as a way to get more eyes on the city’s problems, Berkowitz said.
There’s no money attached to the grant, just advice, Berkowitz said. He pointed to the city’s progress curbing Anchorage’s high rate of car thefts as an example of work with federal authorities.
He said the new initiative could help officials better understand other dynamics in city crime.