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Crime & Courts

In a year when homicide rates increased nationwide, Anchorage saw significant decreases

Anchorage police use a metal detector to look for bullets during a homicide investigation in East Anchorage on Wednesday morning, Oct. 7, 2020. One person died and four were injured in the early morning shooting, according to a release from the police. (Loren Holmes / ADN)

During 2020, 18 people died by homicide in Anchorage and three men were fatally shot by police. That number is nearly half of 2019′s, which almost set a record for homicide fatalities in the municipality.

Throughout the last year, nearly all kinds of crime fell throughout Anchorage.

2020 was an outlier in every way — businesses closed during the pandemic, officials worried COVID-19 patients would overwhelm Alaska’s hospitals and the state recorded high rates of unemplolyment. Anchorage Police Chief Justin Doll said it isn’t clear if the drop in crime can be strongly tied to the unique circumstances of the year.

“I think the police department has put a lot of effort into being proactive and addressing especially violent crime in our community,” Doll said. “But I think that there’s also a little bit of an Alaska factor — we’re always a little different than the rest of the country.”

Anchorage itself has bucked a grim trend that unfolded during 2020 in both large cities and small towns, where homicide and assault rates have spiked during 2020. During the first six months of the year, preliminary data from the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report shows that murder and non-negligent manslaughter increased by 14.8% compared to the first six months of 2019.

Sgt. Bianca Cross, of the homicide unit, said there are a number of reasons violence may have decreased during the last year, but it is difficult to isolate any one.

“Some of the problems that we seem to have involve socializing and drinking environments and that has been significant significantly cut down by COVID,” she said. “The bars have been closed for portions of the year — that might have something to do with it, but it’s really speculation on my part.”

In some cities where there were significant upticks of violence, police departments were challenged by reduced staffing as officers became ill with COVID-19 or were required to quarantine. Doll said the Anchorage department was largely unaffected by infections and few officers contracted the virus.

In Anchorage, there was significantly less violence reported in general, including shootings, Doll said. Data about calls for service related to gunfire were not immediately available from Anchorage police.

Other crime categories, including thefts, burglary, vandalism and sexual assault also seemed to trend downward here in 2020. Across the country, non-violent crime has dropped throughout the year, also.

However, domestic violence shelters and crisis hotlines in Anchorage reported during the pandemic that the number of people who have reached out for help grew significantly during 2020.

“We’re hearing the same thing from some of our partners in the community that numbers to calls into crisis centers has increased, but I don’t know that we’re necessarily seeing the same level of increase in reported assaults,” Doll said.

“There also could be a variety of reasons for that, like it can be difficult sometimes for people who are victims of domestic violence. If they can’t get that separation from a suspect to make those calls, that can be a challenge.”

The people who were killed

Domestic violence is a common thread among homicide cases during recent years, including 2020, said Cross. Many of the cases throughout 2020 were also somehow connected to drugs, Cross said.

Most of the victims died close to their homes and a majority of the year’s homicides happened in the second half of the year, Cross said. Many victims were acquainted with their killer. Their ages ranged, from 5 years old to 83.

Out of the 18 homicides within the municipality in 2020, four cases remained open at the end of the year. In total, 13 people were arrested in 11 separate incidents. Two cases were closed without charges.

Police said Thursday that the circumstances of two suspicious deaths remained under investigation.

The lowest homicide rate in the last 15 years was in 2008, when 12 people in Anchorage died of homicide. During the last few years, the municipality has seen elevated levels of homicide — reaching a record of 37 victims in 2017. The record was nearly matched in 2019 — when 34 people died of homicide, not including three people fatally shot by police.

In 2020, there were three months with no homicides. When there are fewer homicides, Cross said it allows detectives to focus on investigations that are still open.

A cold case unit was established near the end of 2020 to designate investigators to review unsolved crimes. A case becomes “cold” when there are no new leads within three years. Cross said the new unit is important because it allows detectives to review old evidence with new technology and look for areas that may have been missed in previous investigations.

“I think it’s something that the community wanted, that we lacked,” she said. “And now we’re able to step in and fill those fill those expectations. It’s not anything that happens fast — in fact, it’s very time consuming, but definitely worth it. ... We’re looking at all these and trying to make it so some families get some answers.”

The 18 victims who died during 2020 included:

• In March, 71-year-old Rose Warren was fatally stabbed in a South Anchorage residence, police said.

• In early April, 27-year-old Ionatana Toa was dropped off at a hospital for a serious gunshot wound. Police said he died of his injuries.

• In May, 31-year-old William Porter was fatally stabbed by a woman inside an East Anchorage home following a verbal altercation. Officials have declined to pursue charges in the case.

Andrew Alston, 19, was shot to death by his neighbor during an argument that was spurred over a dog. Alston was tending to another man who had been severely injured by a gunshot would when he was killed, police said.

• On the Fourth of July, 66-year-old Donald Jordan was fatally shot while sitting in a lawn chair in the Mountain View neighborhood, according to police.

• Five days later, 23-year-old Monica Jefferies was fatally shot during an altercation in a Midtown Anchorage parking lot, police said. Police have closed the case and charges were declined, a spokeswoman for the department said.

Chantha Vannarath, 56, was found dead in a wooded camp area of the Russian Jack Park in September. No arrests had been made in the case by the end of December.

• In October, Khirey Pruitt, 19, was fatally shot outside a party during an outburst of gunfire that wounded four others. Three teens were charged related to the shooting.

Duane Fields, 48, was fatally shot in a Spenard hotel while helping to break up a fight in October, police said. Two brothers were charged in his death.

Marie Riley, 60, and George Tretikoff, 63, were found dead in a Fairview apartment on Halloween. Nearly two months later, a man was arrested in connection with their deaths.

• In November, Rick Moa, 33, was fatally shot outside a Mountain View gas station. The shooter was upset over $20 in gas money he believed he was owed, according to charging documents.

• On Nov. 19, Maataua Manogiamanu, 49, was fatally shot while driving his vehicle on Dimond Boulevard. His death was the first of four within as many days.

Jared Ward, 38, died from “trauma to the body” after police said they were called to the 4600 block of East Fourth Avenue. By the end of the year, no one had been charged in his death.

Randy Ropati, 28, and Kikono Savo, 38, were both killed by gunfire in two separate, but connected incidents the Mountain View neighborhood.

• A 5-year-old boy was killed in November. A family member had reported the boy missing and police found his body inside a home on the 4200 block of Reka Drive during the investigation. Police did not name the child or explain why the death was being considered a homicide. No charges have been filed in the case and it is still considered active by the department. Cross declined to provide additional details during an interview Tuesday, citing the ongoing investigation.

• The December death of Russell Matt, 56, was initially considered to be suspicious but police have since determined it to be a homicide investigation. He died of “trauma to the body” in Northeast Anchorage, police said. Charges have not been filed in his case.

Anchorage police vehicles block Steeple Drive in Eagle River on Thursday, July 30, 2020, during investigation of an officer-involved shooting in the residential area. (Tess Williams / ADN)

Fatal shootings by police

In February, Anchorage police fatally shot 16-year-old Daelyn Polu during a traffic stop. Officers said Polu fired on them before they shot him. The incident marked the first of three fatal shootings by Anchorage police officers.

Despite the overall downtick of homicides, Anchorage had the same number of fatal shootings by police in 2020 as the year before.

In October, five SWAT officers fatally shot Keith Beecroft outside his Eagle River home after an hours-long standoff. Beecroft repeatedly told police he intended to use police force to kill himself before he stepped outside the home and eventually raised a shotgun toward officers, according to a review of the incident by the Office of Special Prosecutions. In this shooting, as with Polu’s death, officers’ actions were found to be justified.

In December, four officers opened fire on William Riley-Jennings after he refused to obey officer commands. He was suspected of vehicle theft. Doll said that “initial reports indicate the suspect was armed with a gun,” although the department has not confirmed if Riley-Jennings was armed or if any weapons were located at the scene. The Office of Special Prosecutions is still reviewing the shooting.

Nationwide, 2020 marked a year of renewed activism and attention toward police brutality. Video was shared across the world of a Minneapolis police officer kneeling on the neck of George Floyd. In the wake of Floyd’s death, protests erupted worldwide. In some cities, the movements turned violent.

Thousands of people in Anchorage participated in peaceful protests against police brutality. Doll said he was proud of both protesters and police.

“I have family members that got out and protested against police brutality this summer,” he said. “Some of the larger demonstrations that we had in downtown Anchorage — they were peaceful and people made their voices heard.”

The Anchorage Police Department sought more input from the community about policing in the wake of national events. Conversations with officials and the public eventually led the department to push for a technology overhaul that would allow for more accessible records and also outfit officers with body cameras.

The proposal is still working its way through the Assembly, as two assembly members representing Eagle River-Chugiak work alongside Alaska Black Caucus President Celeste Hodge Growden to find funds for the initiative without taking it to the ballot for voters to decide on a tax increase.

Doll said the tech overhaul is the thing he would like to see most for the department in the next year. He said the department has needed to update technology for years and the outdated equipment is hindering operations.

Outlook for 2021

In a year like no other, Doll said there is no way to tell if the downward crime rates seen in 2020 will continue. He hopes the department will be able to analyze the last year to see if their actions may have contributed to the decrease. He wants to find things the department did differently during the year that seemed to work well so they can continue to do them next year. Doll said he wants to see a continued decrease in crimes and violence throughout 2021.

The Assembly allotted funds from an alcohol tax to create a mental health first responders team that will operate primarily under the fire department. The team will respond to people experiencing a mental health crisis and ease some of the burden on Anchorage police officers who respond to those calls now.

Doll said the team will relieve some burden off officers so they can focus on policing.

Anchorage police will continue to focus on discussing policy and policing with the community during 2021, Doll said. As more Alaskans receive the vaccine, he hopes life can transition back to normal in the year ahead.

“Everybody’s been saying the same thing — pretty much everybody can’t wait to put 2020 in the rearview mirror. It’s not any different here at APD,” Doll said. “In all of our personal lives it’s the same. It’s been an extremely challenging year in virtually every aspect. I really hope in 2021 is a little bit easier.”