New state data shows Alaska’s overall crime rate continues to fall, but some forms of violent crime, including murder, are up.
The Alaska Department of Public Safety’s annual Crime in Alaska report, released last week, analyzed data from 2022 submitted by police agencies around the state. This year, 30 Alaska police agencies representing 99.3% of Alaska’s population submitted information about every crime reported. Alaska compiles and submits information to the national FBI Uniform Crime Reporting Program, which also released state data this month.
In a statement, Alaska Department of Public Safety Commissioner James Cockrell described the results as mixed.
“While the 2022 crime data continues to show decreasing crime rates in many categories, we also have significant work to do addressing violent crimes such as murder and aggravated assault,” Cockrell wrote.
Crime statistics are often grist for politicians and advocacy groups trying to make a point about how well their public safety agendas are working — or not.
The Crime in Alaska report was alternately used by the National Republican Congressional Committee to slam Democrats, including Rep. Mary Peltola, D-Alaska, for being soft on crime and also by Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy as proof his administration’s public safety policies are working.
So how best to understand what crime statistics really reveal about public safety in Alaska? University of Alaska Anchorage criminologist Brad Myrstol has some thoughts. First, he says, understand what the data includes — and what it leaves out.
While the data represented by the Crime in Alaska report is considered the most complete record of crimes reported to police, it has limitations, said Myrstol, the director of the Alaska Justice Information Center.
One major reason: The data only represents crimes people tell police about, and some types of crime are underreported, he said.
Research has shown rape is among the most underreported types of crime, he said. Vehicle theft, on the other hand, is among the most highly reported types of crime, because insurance companies often require a report to police, according to Myrstol.
That means the Crime in the Alaska data tends to underestimate the total volume of crime because not every crime is reported to the police, he said.
Still, the data has the advantage of being standardized, he said: By law, participating police departments have to report numbers in the same way. And while Alaska’s population is small and some smaller police departments report few crimes, statewide numbers are “pretty solid ground” because the aggregation provides some stability, Myrstol said. A crime victimization survey — like the one the Alaska Justice Information Center works on — offers a more comprehensive look at issues such as sexual assault and abuse, he said.
So what is the Department of Public Safety data good for? Trends. The Crime in Alaska data is “very good for estimating the change in crime over time,” he said.
A caveat: Looking at data from one year to another is less illuminating than looking at how crime incidence and rates play out over longer periods of time. The lower the prevalence of a certain type of crime — such as homicide — the more cautious you have to be, Myrstol said. For example, the number of homicides rose 67% from 2021 to 2022, from 42 to 70, according to the report.
“You can see wild increases or decreases in any given year,” he said. The yearly fluctuations are less meaningful than looking at a longer trend line.
Looking at the longer trend line, the overall number of homicides in Alaska has risen markedly since 2008, Myrstol said.
“There does seem to be an upward trend in the number of homicides reported to police in Alaska,” he said. “So it’s certainly not encouraging news.”
Among the main takeaways from the 2022 data:
• The total number of crimes reported to police fell slightly over the previous year, while the number of violent crimes reported increased slightly.
• The number of homicide, aggravated assault, vehicle theft and arson offenses reported to police statewide increased. All other serious crimes had fewer offenses reported.
• The number of rape offenses reported to police was at its lowest point since 2016. Still, Alaska’s sexual assault rate remains far above the national average.
• The number of homicides in Alaska jumped after a two-year downturn during the coronavirus pandemic. After the state recorded a record 70 homicides in 2019, the number fell to 48 in 2020 and 42 in 2021, in the midst of the pandemic. In 2022, there were 70.
• Alaska’s violent crime rate remains far above the national average. Alaska’s rate of violent crimes by population is 758.9, while the U.S. rate is 380.7, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s crime data explorer.
Nationally, crime rates has been declining since peaking in the 1990s, Myrstol said. That decline continues, but Alaska’s rates are still far above the national average in several categories.
Perceptions about places can be shaped by crime statistics, which can lead people to withdraw from the communities they live in, Myrstol said.
People who perceive that they live in an unsafe place withdraw from the public life — maybe locking their cars away, not allowing kids to play in the neighborhood or taking other steps to isolate themselves. It can be almost a self-fulfilling prophecy, or what researchers call a “spiral of decay,” as Myrstol puts it.
“If you’re really interested in economic revitalization of a community or a city, crime rates really matter, right?” he said. “Because people, people want to move to safe communities where they and their families can thrive.”