An Anchorage Police Department unit dedicated in March to breaking up small-time drug deals has since seized thousands of servings of meth, heroin and other illicit drugs, largely through traffic stops, police officials said this week.
But officials say the "street-level" drug busts — part of a more concerted effort on small-quantity drug dealing — haven't led to as many convictions or wider investigations as expected. Sean Case, an acting deputy police chief, told members of the Anchorage Assembly that a new state law reducing penalties for drug offenses makes suspects less likely to cooperate in an investigation.
In a presentation Wednesday, Case showed the outcome of nearly 20 street-level drug investigations since March by APD's Community Action Policing Team. Case said a crew of six officers had made more than 80 arrests and their work had led to eight pending federal prosecutions. The officers also recovered 11 stolen vehicles, out of hundreds that have been swiped this year.
The significance of the drug seizures, part of a renewed focus on street-level drugs, was not immediately clear. Officials could not produce records to show whether the department is seizing more or fewer drugs than in prior years. Police officials were still compiling the data Thursday in response to a records request.
But this week, Case and other police officials hoped to show the Assembly some results of a new strategy. The department has come under mounting public pressure to respond to escalating reports of property crime, particularly vehicle thefts, and violence in the city.
In March, Mayor Ethan Berkowitz and police officials announced a three-pronged "action plan" to foil thefts and burglaries, focused on neighborhood work and foot patrols. Police Chief Justin Doll and other top officials believe that drug dealing is linked to the rise in property crimes.
As part of the plan, some officers from APD's 12-member Community Action Policing Unit, known as the CAP team, were assigned to a new beat. The CAP team, led by two sergeants and a lieutenant, previously focused broadly on community problems, like homeless camps or bad behavior at Town Square Park.
Starting in March, half the team was dedicated exclusively to street-level drug enforcement, such as the exchange of small quantities of drugs in parking lots.
In a Wednesday presentation, Case showed what's happened since.
Case showed CAP had made an assortment of drug seizures — from acid stamps to Xanax and OxyContin — between March and August. Most came from traffic stops, Case said.
By far the largest categories of drugs seized by police were the standard types of drugs that have been seized for decades in the United States — meth and heroin, and marijuana, which is being sold outside the state's legal commercial industry. The CAP officers seized 8,700 doses of heroin, amid a rising opioid epidemic in the state that has led to overwhelming demand at Anchorage's syringe exchange.
Case and other officials could not immediately say how the drug seizure and investigation statistics stacked up against prior years, when different strategies were used.
The quantities didn't immediately stand out as being unusual in the history of Anchorage's drug trafficking. In 1997, the Anchorage Daily News reported APD's drug-enforcement unit had seized 134 grams of meth, also known as speed, that year. Two years earlier, officers seized 621 grams overall.
It's also not the first time APD has also pledged more attention to street-level drug crimes.
In a 2009 interview with the Daily News, acting chief Steve Smith said APD would be redeploying officers with a disbanding Metro unit to "focus more on what we call the street level."
"It's the crack house next door, not trying to investigate and get buys into certain people and roll them against their suppliers," Smith said. "There's a place for those investigations, and DEA actually leads most of them."
Today, APD officers still work with federal agents as part of drug task forces. There's also still a Vice Unit that tackles larger drug investigations that involve months of work, numerous suspects and huge volumes of drugs.
In his presentation, Case highlighted a 2017 seizure made by a separate unit, APD's Vice Unit, which deals with longer-term drug investigations and larger quantities of drugs. Officers recovered 2 kilograms of heroin in 189 pouches, about 20,000 doses, according to Case. The street value of the drugs was $79,000.
More than two years ago, a team that focused on street-level drugs disbanded, according to Case. He and other officials believe that has hampered the ability of the police department to curb property crime.
Case also pointed to the reduction of penalties for drug offenses through a 2015 criminal justice reform bill, Senate Bill 91.
Under a threat of a felony, suspects were more likely to cooperate with police, Case said. He said the reduction of many drug crimes to a misdemeanor offense has led to less overall cooperation.
"They would rather take the low-level misdemeanor offense and go on their way," Case said.