Anchorage

Anchorage voters will decide on tax levy that would give police body cameras and other tech

Anchorage voters in April will decide on a proposed property tax levy that would fund a host of technology upgrades for the police department, including body-worn and in-car cameras.

The Assembly on Tuesday approved in a 7-3 vote an ordinance placing the levy on the April 6 ballot.

The Assembly also unanimously passed a resolution dedicating $250,000 in municipal funds from the 2021 budget to begin implementing the technology upgrades.

The money will help update a computer-aided dispatch and record management system that is “at end of life and at risk of catastrophic failure,” according to the resolution. Those upgrades are needed before cameras can be implemented.

“It’s just the start of really building a legacy piece of infrastructure for APD that will be to the benefit of our community,” said Assembly member Meg Zaletel.

Because the Assembly wasn’t able to finish its agenda Tuesday, it continued its meeting Wednesday. There is also a special Assembly meeting scheduled for Thursday to hold public hearing on a resolution authorizing the mayor to accept federal funds for rental assistance.

The tax levy for the police department technology is capped at $1.84 million and would complete the funding for the technology overhaul. It’s a property tax increase of about $5.32 per every $100,000 in assessed value.

For years, groups in the community, including the Alaska Black Caucus, have called for more transparency and accountability from Anchorage police. Calls from the community and Assembly for the department to implement body-worn cameras increased over the last year as a nationwide movement for police reform unfolded after the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

[Anchorage police don’t wear body cameras, but officials say that could change amid national calls for reform]

Anchorage Police Chief Justin Doll has said the department is supportive of introducing body cameras but that it has so far been too expensive. A $1.8 million bond proposal in October by former Mayor Ethan Berkowitz helped set in motion the ballot proposition.

The police department intends to lease the necessary equipment and technology to keep up with upgrades and reduce maintenance costs.

Assembly member Christopher Constant on Tuesday said the equipment will protect citizens from abuses by police but will also protect police from unfounded allegations of mistreatment or abuse.

Despite a general agreement among Assembly members about the necessity of the cameras and upgrades, questions of how best to fund them dominated discussions before the members voted to pass both items.

Assembly members Crystal Kennedy, Jamie Allard and Kameron Perez-Verdia, who each voted against putting the tax levy on the ballot, said at various points during the meeting that the money should come from funds the municipality already has, not taxpayers.

“I truly do believe that if the will was there, we could identify existing funding within our operating budget to fund this now,” Perez-Verdia said. “It concerns me that it’s not so much of a priority that there is enough will to do that.”

Kennedy said she worries voters will reject the levy, leaving the municipality and police department back at square one.

Kennedy also said the cost of leasing the technology would rise in coming years, and the size of the police force and vehicle fleet could grow, increasing the need for more funding for the cameras.

The $1.84 million tax levy cap could be an issue down the line, she said. A tax levy also places a burden on citizens, she said.

“It’s those who can’t afford it, those that didn’t vote for it, that still end up paying for it anyway,” Kennedy said.

Alaska Black Caucus president Celeste Hodge Growden during public testimony questioned whether the Assembly is truly prioritizing the technology overhaul by allowing voters to possibly reject it.

But Hodge Growden later told the Assembly she is happy to see it commit to the program by putting up the initial municipal funds.

“At the end of the day, it’s about keeping our community safe,” Hodge Growden said.

Others on the Assembly and some people who called in or spoke in person expressed concern that if the upgrades were folded into the municipal budget, the program could be terminated by a future Assembly or mayoral administration.

“The voters can mandate that we keep these technologies around and it isn’t the whim of this or that mayor and this or that Assembly,” Assembly member Constant said.

Constant also said there is broad support in the community for this type of technology.

Several Assembly members said that if the levy does not pass, they intend to find another source of funding.

“I’m committed to ensure that we have a way to pay for it going forward. We will find the way,” Constant said.

A previous version of the resolution to fund the upgrades with municipal money would have pulled some money for funding of early childhood education from an alcohol tax approved by voters last year. That version did not pass.

The process to actually implement the technology will take time, and it means that the police department will need to develop protocol and policy around using body cameras, Zaletel said.

“Having some municipal skin in the game through a monetary contribution already, and then moving toward the tax levy, is a great way to jumpstart that process,” Zaletel said.

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