The Anchorage Downtown Partnership has changed how its safety ambassadors patrol downtown’s streets, ending a program model its executive director says resulted in some unintended negative consequences, like gaps in crime data, and increasingly led to ambassadors dealing with situations better handled by police or social service providers.
Safety ambassadors are the partnership’s paid security guards who patrol downtown, working closely with the Anchorage Police Department and other emergency services.
The Downtown Partnership, a nonprofit, discontinued its Safety First program on Jan. 1. The program was a collaboration with the Anchorage Community Development Authority that began in 2016. ACDA’s Easy Park ran a hotline that dispatched the safety ambassadors in response to calls about problems downtown.
The program allowed businesses, property owners, residents and others to report issues such as disorderly or suspicious behavior, graffiti, panhandling, public drinking and drug use, and needs like trash removal and sidewalk cleanup. The Downtown Partnership would then send its ambassadors to help.
Amanda Moser, executive director of the Anchorage Downtown Partnership, said that the partnership is returning to a proactive model that sends ambassadors to patrol the streets and talk with business and property owners, acting as the “eyes and ears” of downtown, rather than dispatching the ambassadors to respond to acute issues.
Problems with the program surfaced during the summer of 2020, when the pandemic left downtown largely empty, devoid of the usual tourism, Moser said.
“Empty spaces invite and welcome nefarious activity, and so we began to see some really serious hotspots,” Moser said, “...Particularly Peratrovich Park and Fifth and Gambell,” she said.
As problems worsened over the last two years, the Downtown Partnership’s safety ambassadors were often sent into situations they weren’t equipped to handle, Moser said.
“I began to really recognize we were in over our head because we were responding to something that was so much bigger than we could address,” Moser said. “...Our team is not law enforcement and we’re not social service providers.”
Another unintended consequence of Safety First: The program diverted calls away from the usual emergency and non-emergency dispatch lines. That left a big gap in the dispatch call data that the Anchorage Police Department uses to assess safety needs in the area.
The data is a “fundamental piece of how APD deploys its resources,” said Assembly member Christopher Constant, who represents downtown.
Constant said over the last few years, he continuously received messages from constituents in the area telling him that “crime is just out of hand,” even though the Anchorage Police Department had just moved its headquarters downtown in 2019.
“How could it not be getting better?” Constant said. “And then it dawned on me one day.”
Safety First had responded to about nearly 12,000 calls in 2019, according to the ACDA’s yearly report. None of those calls were included in APD dispatch data. That was undercutting APD’s data-oriented policing process, he said.
“If the Anchorage Police Department and if social services are making their decisions based on data, then they had this huge gap in data,” Moser said.
Returning to the proactive model should allow the safety ambassadors to help protect larger swaths of downtown, rather than continuously heading to problem areas where law enforcement should be stepping in, she said. It will also help them notice problems arising in other areas before they escalate to the level seen near Fifth Avenue and Gambell Street last year, she said. Large groups of homeless individuals were gathering there, and in June, tensions culminated in a shooting that killed a woman.
“It’s crazy to think that this little nonprofit organization ... without police powers, is going to be able to solve police problems,” Constant said.
“Everybody was trying to do the right thing, a good thing, a hopeful thing. The problem is sometimes you can’t anticipate the kind of issues that could fall out from the good you’re trying to do,” he said.