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Crime & Courts

‘I don’t just hear it, I feel it’: A conversation about Anchorage crime with Mayor Berkowitz

  • Author: Kyle Hopkins
  • Updated: July 27, 2018
  • Published July 26, 2018

Anchorage Mayor Ethan Berkowitz speaks with Anchorage Daily News special projects editor Kyle Hopkins on Tuesday at City Hall. (Loren Holmes / ADN)

Early one January morning, a woman dialed 911 to say she saw a man in her Anchorage Turnagain neighborhood surrounded by envelopes, opening mail.

When police arrived, they found the trespasser carrying "multiple pieces of mail" that had been stolen earlier that day. Among the victims: Anchorage Mayor Ethan Berkowitz.

Since Berkowitz took office in 2015, Anchorage has grappled with record-high homicides in 2016 and again in 2017 and record car thefts in 2017. In that time, the mayor says, someone was killed on his street. There have been overdoses in the area. Thefts. People rifled through his car.

"I don't just hear it, I feel it," Berkowitz said of the drug-fueled crime wave that has become the talk of Anchorage.

"It's happened to my friends, my family," Berkowitz said. "This is not something that's abstract."

The FBI will soon release crime statistics for 2017, showing Anchorage with record or near-record numbers car thefts, assaults and stolen firearms.

When the Daily News recently explored those trends in a series of stories and interviews with property crime detectives, readers told us they wanted to hear directly from Berkowitz on the issue.

The mayor, a former prosecutor and Alaska state legislator, recently sat down for a half-hour discussion on Anchorage crime. He was joined by Police Chief Justin Doll. This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

ADN: I can remember having conversations when you were first running for mayor. Dan Sullivan was on his way out. At that time, crime was also very much on people's minds and it was a big part of your campaign. Here we are three years later, and in some ways the numbers are as bad or worse than ever. What happened?

Berkowitz: You've got to look at the whole context of what's going on and what's driving some of the crime that's going on. There's a massive drug and alcohol problem right now. The opioid epidemic is huge.

We had almost no federal help with doing interdiction. The police department was at about 320 effective officers at that point.

The state was in retreat from what it was doing with the number of troopers. The number of prosecutors. The behavioral health system was being severely short-funded, dismantled. And all this happened, just as innocent people are aware of what's going on, the criminal side was too, and they see a little bit of free license to do things.

What we focused on over the last three years is rebuilding the police department. That's an important piece of creating public safety, but public safety is really a combination of four different factors from a policy perspective.

You have to prevent crime. You have to police crime. You have to prosecute and you have to punish it.

The prevention piece is something we're going to work on over the next three years. We're doing it largely because we have the capacity to do it, even though it has historically been a state responsibility, we're going to step into that breach.

The behavioral health issue is huge and a lot of the crime here is drug and alcohol driven. There's a resurgence of that. The opioids are big. Meth is also a huge driver as to what's occurring.

I wouldn't forget that we have historic problems in this city and this state with domestic violence and sexual assault. Those continue to exist. When the police department was downsized significantly, a lot of the investigative capacity was hurt.

Our ability to sort of seek crime out before it happened was impeded. And so, restoring the police department to strength is really critical.

But also this is not a law enforcement problem, by itself. When officers pick up somebody who has a drug or alcohol problem, there's no place to bring them or take them.

And we've got to change that piece of the equation. If you want to deal with the opioid epidemic, the most effective thing you can do is to treat the problem.

The number of beds we have in this town is woefully inadequate.

ADN: Is Anchorage a safe place to live?

Berkowitz: I think by and large it is a safe place to live.

We have work to do. We're going to do that work. But we're going to do that with making sure that people know that we're making progress.

The signs are that we have sort of turned a corner. But we're going to continue to make sure that APD has the resources it needs and the capacity it needs to do what it has to do.

Because so much of what's occurring on the streets is drug and alcohol fueled, we're going to build that capacity so that we can't say, "Well, because API has been downsized or because we only have 14 detox beds in town, we're just going to throw up our hands."

We're going to do what we can to sort of expand our capacity to deal with the treatment piece of this and prevention piece of it.


ADN: We talked to car thieves who said they weren't thinking about SB 91 or sentencing laws when stealing cars; they were high. But APD detectives said they have seen cases where criminals were more sophisticated and were aware of penalties. Do you think SB 91 created problems?

I think the way SB 91 was implemented exacerbated a problem. Because when you change policy without changing practice, you're not really doing anything.

The theory behind SB 91 is that you're going to rehabilitate people before you release them, given the high rates of incarceration, recidivist, repeat offenders that we have in this state. It's a legitimate theory. It's been tried in other places.

But what wound up happening in practice is, we just released people. And the more expensive pieces that would have led to long-term reduction in crime rates were never funded. You know, making sure that there were folks who were monitoring people who were making sure the rehabilitation had occurred. That didn't take place.

And the message went out that offenders could commit offenses without consequence. And that sort of fed the idea, at least in the criminal element's mind, that they could go do things and there wouldn't be a cost to it.

So the more that narrative got out there, the more it spun up. And I think as we've turned the corner, as people see there are consequences to doing things.

ADN: How has crime affected you personally?

I mean, people have taken stuff out of my mailbox. I've had cars that are rifled through. … People have been victims of more serious crimes that I know and am close to. I mean, I live on a street where a homicide occurred. There's ODs that happened around.

I go out with APD, on walkabouts and ride-alongs as the training occurs. So I talk to a lot of people. So I see it in a lot of ways.

But I do things to make sure that personally, we harden ourselves against what's occurring. I lock my doors in my car now in ways I hadn't. I put it in the garage — hopefully once I can get the garage emptied of gear, we'll put the cars back in the garage. But those are the kind of things we do.

And you just have to be more situationally aware than we had been. You know, when I walk down the street, I look to see who is on the street. I pay much more attention to that than I had a few years ago.

Berkowitz: There's been a change in the population on the streets. That's happened over the last couple of years. It had been people who were destitute. Who had not been receiving the mental health support that we should provide in a community, with drug and alcohol treatment. And now you are seeing things in a more, slightly more organized way, and it's more malicious.

There are people out there who are organized.

There's prey that are being organized by predators. If you are desperate to get another hit and someone is orchestrating your behavior, that makes things a little bit more pronounced than it had been.

… I spent a lot of time listening to politicians say they are going to be tough on crime. Being tough on crime isn't the same as being smart on crime. Our challenge here is to be smart on crime.

ADN: If a meth addict or heroin addict decides today is the day they want to get clean, are there opportunities in Anchorage for them to do so? Are there beds, are there programs available?

Berkowitz: It's better than it had been, I think because you look at Alaska Regional is doing things that it hadn't done. Southcentral Foundation is doing things it hadn't done. There's more capacity than we had. We don't have near enough.

When you walk around and you talk to the providers, when you talk to the people who are addicted, it sometimes can be weeks before people who want to … go through rehabilitation can get there. And that's way too long a timeframe. It needs to be instantaneous.

What we're going to do is expand our capacity to deal with the prevention piece. To deal with the behavioral health issues because I can't keep waiting for the state to get its act together.

ADN: After a recent homicide, the suspect told police he was a gang member who believed the teen he shot was a rival gang member. That raises alarms, but I get the impression from detectives that gangs are not a driving factor in our current crime problems?

Berkowitz: They are not a driving factor. I mean there are a lot of, or some, wannabes out there who claim gang membership without necessarily having gang membership. We do not have the dimension of gang problems that exist in Lower 48 cities.

What's driving crime at this point is the opioid epidemic, meth and the alcohol … that's what's driving things. And it's nothing new. I mean, the alcohol piece is nothing new.

ADN: Have we hit the peak? Have we started to turn the corner or have we not seen the worst of these crime issues?

Berkowitz: I can't say that. I mean, I can't give you an answer to that. My sense is that, yes, I think we've crested in terms of things. But I also think we have work to do.

As we make sure the police department sees the benefit of coming to full strength, because it's not there yet, you're going to see a greater benefit from policing. As we do more on the behavioral health side of things with drug and alcohol treatment, even mental health treatment, not only are you going to prevent people from committing crimes, you are going to take away a source of people who are victimized by crimes too. Which also creates a sense of lawlessness out there. As we deal with homelessness, it's going to take care of some of these problems. …

As we do more with our partnerships with the feds and the state … with the high-intensity drug trafficking (designation). All the sudden we are going to have more money and resources to help interdict. And we haven't had that.

In spite of all the talk of people making sure that our borders were protected, we've had too many drugs come in from faraway places because there was no one to intercept it. So now we are going to have the capacity to intercept. So that's really critical.

ADN: Cartels made their way up through Oregon, in terms of supplying drugs. They were a business finding new markets. Any indication that is happening in Alaska, and they have found a market here?

Berkowitz: I have a sense, but I would let Justin answer that one.

Anchorage Police Chief Justin Doll: The source of supply that Alaska sees for its drugs mostly comes across the southwest border, which is not surprising for most of the West Coast.

To the extent that whatever individual package arrives in Anchorage, related to one of the major cartels across the border, some of it is, some of it isn't. But I think a lot of it, all across the western half of the United States has its origination there. But you know, like a lot of distribution networks, there are a lot of different levels involved, so tracing it back to one of those (cartels) is not always something that's possible to do or easy to do.

ADN: What is next in terms of policy that people will be seeing from the city?

Berkowitz: I talk about prevention, policing, prosecution and prisons. The prevention piece is the area we're going to focus on.

We're going to make sure we have greater capacity to deal with the behavioral health that's missing. Making sure that there's more treatment and a greater ability to interrupt that pipeline of people who are creating problems. Give them a chance to get out of the drug life and alcohol life.

ADN: How do you do that?

Berkowitz: We don't have the capacity right now. I mean, we had 14 or 16 beds for treatment. I'd love to be able to stand up a facility where we could have 100 beds. Fairbanks has twice the number of support that we do. Juneau, twice the number of support that we do. … So that's a big piece of it, the behavioral health piece of it.

Our ability to fund this is going to require working together with federal and state partners. Working together with the private sector. With the nonprofit sector, and we're going to find a way of doing things. I think the biggest project that people are going to look on is at the Clitheroe site out there, we're going to expand that capacity significantly.

This is a problem that … APD will snatch up somebody who is on the street and there's no place to take them. DOC doesn't always, if someone is high, DOC might not take them. So there's nothing we can do but let them out sometimes. If there's some place we can take them, get them treatment right away, who can be more impactful.

What's effective is, when you have people's attention because you've incarcerated them or because they are in a rehab capacity, then we need to do something to change their behavior. Because if we are just sort of incarcerating people and letting them loose, that's not doing anything.