Downtown Anchorage bar and restaurant owners say they want more cops on the street during weekend bar-break hours, and they're now willing to pool their money to pay for it.
A formal agreement in the works would use voluntary contributions from downtown businesses to pay for up to six overtime Anchorage police officers in the downtown area between midnight and 4 a.m. on Saturdays and Sundays, a time when alcohol-fueled violence has broken out among patrons as the bars close.
Anchorage Police Chief Mark Mew said it's not a "rent-a-cop" program, but is set up as a grant to fund overtime police staffing for the downtown patrol area.
After considering the idea for several years, business owners and managers say they see it as a way to deter crime and bad behavior downtown, and boost an image tarnished by several high-profile incidents and now-shuttered bars in recent years. Roughly a dozen downtown bars and restaurants were involved in coming up with the agreement, including Gaslight Lounge, Humpy's Great Alaskan Alehouse and Glacier Brewhouse.
"The biggest thing we're trying to accomplish here is to make the perception of downtown, and the reality of downtown, as a safe place to come anytime during the day," said John Pattee, owner of the Gaslight Lounge.
A draft agreement, a copy of which was provided to Alaska Dispatch News, has been drawn up between the Anchorage Police Department and the Anchorage Downtown Partnership Community Services, an arm of the Anchorage Downtown Partnership, a downtown business group. The agreement, introduced to downtown businesses on July 9, outlines the police staffing levels -- "no less than 2" -- and the methods for reimbursing the police department for the enforcement costs, a rate of $132 an hour.
The deal is not yet final, and at an estimated cost of about $100,000 annually, it's also not cheap. As a voluntary program, the cost per business will depend on the number that decide to sign on. Chris Schutte, director of the Anchorage Downtown Partnership, which is coordinating the efforts, said the focus now is to recruit participation from more of the roughly 80 downtown businesses licensed to serve alcohol.
No start date has been set, but Peter Burns, director of operations for Humpy's, Flattop Pizza, Sub Zero and the new Williwaw bar and restaurant center, said businesses are hoping to start out with a three- to six-month trial run.
Mew, the police chief, said the number of police officers would depend on the amount of money in the fund. The police department would only be reimbursed for what's spent, and it would produce periodic reports so businesses can "see what they get for their money," Mew said.
More foot patrols
Police have periodically increased enforcement in the downtown area, but this appears to be the first formal agreement proposed with bar owners paying for added enforcement themselves. Mew said he had made the suggestion in the past when bar owners requested more police enforcement.
"Our feeling was, if the businesses are helping contribute to a situation that requires more police presence, maybe they'll be willing to pay for that police presence," Mew said.
Bar owners, in particular, have asked for more foot patrols, particularly around bar break time, Mew said. Some owners have offered to pay for cops stationed in front of their bars.
But Mew said department leadership is concerned about conflicts of interest and police officers appearing to "moonlight" for bar owners. With the grant setup, officers don't know which businesses have paid into the pool of money, Mew said. He said the overtime detail also makes it so APD isn't shifting resources from other parts of town. About four officers are currently assigned to the downtown patrol area.
Troy Payne, an assistant professor of justice at the UAA Justice Center who researches policing, said he hadn't seen details of the proposed arrangement. But he said using the police department as a middleman would better avoid potential ethical problems associated with bar owners directly employing off-duty police officers as security guards, as is allowed in some jurisdictions elsewhere.
Mew presented the proposal to bar and restaurant owners earlier this month at a meeting at the partnership's Fourth Avenue office. The group is also interested in improved lighting downtown, the introduction of a "bar safety hour" when no booze can be sold, and more taxi loading zones.
Mayor Ethan Berkowitz also attended the partnership meeting this month. In a statement from a spokesman, Berkowitz called the efforts "encouraging" but didn't directly endorse the proposal.
"I am very supportive of public-private partnerships that enhance public safety and am encouraged that businesses are stepping forward to increase safety downtown," the statement quoted Berkowitz as saying.
A big question for the businesses is cost. The addition of two officers to the downtown bar-break patrol for about six months would cost $48,576, or close to $100,000 a year, according to a chart Schutte circulated in an email to business owners.
If 10 businesses sign on for six months, each would pay about $4,800, according to the chart. If 20 join, the cost drops to about $2,500.
Chris Anderson, operating partner of Brews Brothers LLC, which includes Glacier Brewhouse and Orso, said cost isn't an issue.
"Whatever the number that I need to do to support this, I'll gladly do," Anderson said.
Anderson noted that while his businesses close well before bar closing time, he still wants to improve the neighborhood's overall environment.
'Pie in the sky'
Other business owners said they were on board in spite of deep skepticism. Darwin Biwer, owner of Darwin's Theory and chairman for the board of the state Cabaret, Hotel, Restaurant and Retailers Association, said he's willing to pay his share.
But he said he doubts the program will get the results other business owners want, or even get off the ground.
"It's just not going to happen," Biwer said. "It's just a pie in the sky."
Biwer said he doesn't think retailers, such as smaller tourist shops, will pay into the fund.
He also noted that he's long advocated for policymakers to do away with downtown bar hours and allow bars to stay open all night.
Schutte said he's heard two big concerns about the program. In some cases, managers for restaurants that are not locally owned say they're unsure they can justify the expense to their corporate offices, Schutte said.
A couple of licensed businesses have already declined to participate, saying they were interested but couldn't afford it, Schutte said.
Mew said the police department is on board and will be waiting to see if the plan moves forward.