Alaska's crime rate rose 6 percent in 2017 compared to the previous year, according to new statewide statistics released Wednesday by the Department of Public Safety.
The rate for violent crimes, including murder, rape, robbery and assault, increased 7 percent. Property crimes such as car theft and burglary, rose 6 percent compared to 2016.
Alaska Attorney General Jahna Lindemuth said in a news conference Wednesday morning that growing violence and spiking property crime go "hand in hand" with the ongoing state opioid epidemic.
"This is a significant increase in our crime rates, and it's unacceptable," Lindemuth said. "It is also not surprising. We didn't have these statistics last year, but we knew it, we felt it, we heard it from the public, and it's really a reflection of the opioid epidemic being out of control" amid a state fiscal crisis.
The rising crime rate is both a public health issue and a public safety issue, she said.
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Compared to 2013, the property crime rate in Alaska was up last year by 22 percent, according to the statistics. The violent crime rate was up 34 percent.
Asked about the spike in violent crimes, Public Safety Commissioner Walt Monegan said gangs are partly to blame.
"We've seen a lot more activity in the urban areas in regards to some of the violence that (is) kind of related to gangs … that's probably driving our numbers up quicker than elsewhere," he said.
He specifically pointed to what he called "scavenger gangs," groups that are "immature," not as organized or developed as more well-known gangs.
"They are also responsible for a lot of the issues that we are facing today," Monegan said.
Anchorage Police Department Chief Justin Doll said he did not think increased violent crime in the city is specifically driven by gang activity. The underlying theme for violent crime in Anchorage is that it's associated with other criminal activity such as drug-related offenses or property crime, he said.
Doll also pointed to federal law that outlines what constitutes a gang. Part of that definition, he said, involves a fixed group of people who consistently engage in crime. In Anchorage, the criminal scene is "somewhat flexible," with shifting alliances, Doll said.
"When you hear law enforcement not wanting to commit to that easy label — we need to be sure we can validate that and back it up," he said.
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In addition to rising crime rates, Alaska also had fewer sworn law enforcement officers last year compared to 2013, according to the report. APD, though, has hired about 100 new officers in recent years.
The Department of Law was down 22 prosecutors last year compared to 2014, Lindemuth said, though the agency did add a handful in 2017 and hopes to add more this year.
Officials at Wednesday's press conference were more optimistic about 2018, when they expect to see some results from a strategy state agencies created last year to get a handle on crime.
Lindemuth cited the state's "public safety action plan," released in October, which seeks to identify public safety resource needs across the state, improve access to mental health and substance abuse treatment and address the opioid epidemic and drug trafficking. The plan also includes strategies to reform the criminal justice system.
"Crime is a complex issue and requires a comprehensive plan to address it," Lindemuth said. "There is no silver bullet."
The Daily News had requested Anchorage-area crime statistics for 2017 earlier this year for a special report on record-breaking property crime in the city.
The statistics released Wednesday, known as the Uniform Crime Report, are reported by Alaska law enforcement agencies to the FBI. Find historical numbers here.