Anchorage Assembly questions police over continued citing of minors for smoking and vaping

The Anchorage Assembly is questioning why the police department is using state code to cite minors for smoking and vaping after last summer it removed similar penalties from city code. The Assembly argues doing so is ineffective and targets kids rather than the companies selling the products.

In response to the police department’s issues with the Assembly’s directive, the two sides are designing a softer punishment for the Anchorage Police Department to impose amid a sharp increase in teen vaping.

At a committee meeting last week, Assembly members asked Anchorage Police Chief Justin Doll why officers are relying on state code over their intent.

“We were very surprised to learn that APD was issuing citations to minors, but we want to find out why,” Assemblywoman Austin Quinn-Davidson said.

Doll said school resource officers cite students under state code because school administrators ask them to help curb vaping. Doll said anecdotal evidence suggests this is due to steep rise in vaping at Anchorage high schools.

Further, Doll told Assembly members he didn’t know the city changed the law until he was asked about the citations in December.

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“There was surprise on the part of APD that that law had changed and we hadn’t been included in that discussion, or at least even advised of it, until questions started being asked about why these citations are being issued," Doll said.

The issue was discussed and voted on at Assembly meetings that Doll and Deputy Chief Ken McCoy regularly attend. Assembly counsel Dean Gates said there is no process or practice of formally informing the police when a law is changed.

“The principal executives, chiefs, and department heads are usually at every regular Assembly meeting,” Gates said via email. “In 20/20 hindsight I should have engaged APD in the drafting and work sessions on this (ordinance). We were working with the Health Department.”

APD spokesman MJ Thim said Doll and McCoy attend nearly every meeting, but usually don’t stay until the end unless they are asked to participate on a specific item. They weren’t asked to be involved in the Tobacco 21 ordinance, Thim said.

Several Assembly members voiced frustration about the continued citations. In 2018, APD cited eight minors for possession. From Jan. 2019 to Oct. 2019, they cited minors 82 times. Twenty-three of those came between Aug. 29 and Oct. 30.

Assembly member Forrest Dunbar called the citations “disturbing.”

“I mean, we said ‘stop doing this thing,'" he said.

Quinn-Davidson questioned why Doll doesn’t prioritize local ordinances over state ordinances.

“Why would you be forced to allow officers to give a state ticket that go against the policy of your employer?” she asked. "That’s confusing.”

Doll responded, “I think it’s a very slippery slope to start saying, ‘Well, today, we don’t like this law, so we want you to ignore that one. But we do kind of like this one.'"

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Data presented at the Wednesday meeting showed 21 citations were issued at Service High School and 18 were issued at Chugiak High School. Others had fewer. Begich Middle School had nine citations, Dimond High School had three and Eagle River High School had one. Doll said based on anecdotal evidence, he believes school resource officers are citing high-schoolers because school administrators are asking them to help curb an increase in vaping.

City Ombudsman Darrel Hess started looking into the issue after a parent complained his son was cited under state code after the city repealed the penalty. The parent pointed out that enforcement was not consistent through Anchorage high schools.

Hess said he talked to Anchorage School District senior director Kersten Johnson, who called around to schools and found out some schools ask for a citation to be written on the first offense, others on the third. Some school resource officers don’t ever issue such citations, he said.

“The district’s enforcement policy is all over the board,” Hess said. “It’s inconsistent.”

The Assembly is working on a resolution to ask the state of Alaska to get rid of the minor in possession penalty when it adjusts state policy in light of the new federal smoking age of 21, Quinn-Davidson said.

Hess will lead a working group that includes the police, school district and Emily Nenon, the Alaska government relations director for the American Cancer Society, which help draft Anchorage’s policy this summer.

That group will come up with a civil remedy to add in to municipal code which officers can use as a remedy when they catch kids smoking or vaping.