Anchorage Police Chief Michael Kerle has taken the helm of the department after an abrupt retirement announcement from former Chief Ken McCoy, who served in the role for less than a year.
Kerle was officially sworn into the post last week. He told news media on Monday that he hopes to continue the work McCoy started, and wants to prioritize improving community trust.
Kerle grew up in Massachusetts and is a former Army helicopter pilot. He moved to Alaska after finishing his service, and has been with the police department since 1996.
Kerle said he had been planning to retire and was also surprised by McCoy’s retirement announcement in November.
“This was a good opportunity. This is something I never — I didn’t see it in my future,” he said. “I was happy as a patrol sergeant on the street and I (was) promoted to lieutenant captain, deputy chief and now the chief of police. I feel honored that people trust me, they’ve seen my leadership ability and I think it’s an opportunity for me to give back to the police department and to the community for allowing me to serve 25 years here.”
The biggest challenge the police department faces is building community trust, Kerle said, and combating a “national narrative that the police are the enemy.”
“We’re not the enemy. We’re here to protect and serve,” Kerle said.
Kerle said McCoy improved community relations and he plans to continue those efforts.
“I want to show them that the Anchorage Police Department is here,” he said. “We want solid community relations because crime is a community problem. We can’t do it alone.”
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McCoy retired from his position as chief less than a year after he began. He was the city’s first Black police chief and community leaders said his retirement was a loss for Anchorage. McCoy has declined multiple requests for an interview. In January, Providence Alaska announced McCoy accepted a role as the hospital’s first chief diversity, equity and inclusion officer.
“Like everyone else, I was surprised that Ken left,” Kerle said. But he said he understood why McCoy took the new position, calling it the “opportunity of a lifetime.”
After McCoy announced he was leaving the department, the Alaska Landmine published anonymously sourced assertions that Mayor Dave Bronson had made improper demands of the department, driving McCoy’s decision. Assembly leaders have since launched an inquiry into the allegations. McCoy declined to comment on the allegations when directly asked by an Assembly member at the Public Safety Committee Meeting in January.
On Monday, Kerle said he “will not speak to what happened between the mayor and Ken because I was not privy to those conversations.”
One of the claims was that that Bronson and Municipal Manager Amy Demboski ordered police to leave the Assembly chambers during a chaotic meeting over a proposed mask mandate in October.
Kerle said he was one of three officers in the Assembly chambers on the evening in question, and said officers remained in the room and were willing to address any problems that could have arisen.
“At no point would we have let anyone in the Assembly be in danger,” he said.
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Kerle said that “... the police didn’t do anything that would violate the integrity of the police department.”
Kerle also said he is not concerned about interference from the Bronson administration.
“The mayor said, ‘It’s your police department. I’m not going to interfere with you.’ And I’m going to take the mayor at his word,” Kerle said.
Kerle said he hopes to build on the positive efforts made by the department in recent years. Crime rates in Anchorage fell in 2020 while many other portions of the country saw violence increase. The trend continued into 2021.
The police department has been working to draft policy surrounding body cameras for officers, which voters approved funding for last year. The process has been lengthy — complicated by legal issues surrounding the release of footage and privacy rights.
Kerle said there is no updated estimate for when the cameras will be implemented, but noted there is a work session with the Public Safety Advisory Commission on Feb. 18 to discuss the policy.
“That’s going to be the opportunity for members of the community to give us their final input,” he said.
Kerle said he looks forward to having officers outfitted with body cameras because they will improve transparency and accountability.
“This works both ways,” he said. “This is a tool to protect officers from files of false accusations against them and make sure that we’re held accountable, too.”
Kerle said his policing philosophy boils down to enforcement. He wants Anchorage police officers to enforce existing laws and treat citizens fairly and with respect.
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He said that also extends to the role police play in relation to homelessness in Anchorage.
“We will enforce the laws that are in place that may deal with the homeless,” he said. “We want to be part of the solution, we want to make sure that everyone in the community comes together to address homelessness. That means providing housing for them, that means providing job training, rehabilitation. There’s a lot of tools that they’re not police matters. The police will deal with the police matters.”