For four consecutive days this week, people in Anchorage woke up to news of a local shooting resulting in death or injury. At a press conference Thursday, Anchorage Police Department Chief Mark Mew said the jump in violence appears to be drug-related and announced APD is creating a temporary task force in an effort to suppress those crimes.
"Of the four homicides, all of them are connected to marijuana, as well as other drugs," Mew said. "Something's going on in the drug world right now."
The task force will consist of 10 to 15 officers pulled from three special units. The officers will be reassigned "for a week or two," he said, "shaking down everything that moves on the street" and "serving warrants like crazy."
Mew also said APD has contacted federal law enforcement in the hope of conducting a combined crackdown. It would be similar to the FBI's Safe Streets Violent Crime Initiative in 2007, when groups of field officers focused on gang violence and violent crimes.
Some of the shootings appear to involve gangs, Mew said.
On Thursday morning, Anchorage had its fourth homicide since Sunday. Police are releasing scant details on the shooting death in a parking lot in the Russian Jack neighborhood. This shooting follows three others earlier this week. So far, they've arrested a single person, the suspect in one of the homicides.
Both officers and citizens have expressed concern about the uptick in shootings. Two community council leaders in northeast Anchorage, the recent epicenter of the incidents, said they are worried but accept that area of the city has issues with drugs, and that spikes in crime have occurred previously.
Mew said the police department does not have the data to support the notion that the shootings represent a trend. That will take additional digging and time, he said.
Police: 50 witnesses, no help
Police have reported 11 shootings in January, plus a 12th in which someone used a gun against a pit bull puppy.
Mew said Thursday his department compiled a list for the month though Jan. 28, including reports of gunfire where "credible evidence" existed like shell casings and damaged property. The total for the month was 31, he said.
Four of the shootings were homicides while six resulted in criminal investigations of assaults, Mew said. Police are unsure what led to the remaining 21 shootings. In the same periods in 2013 and 2014, the comparable number of shootings were 14 and 12, respectively.
On Jan. 3, an unidentified victim was shot in the leg at an East Anchorage house party. When police arrived at the house, they saw vehicles and people leaving.
There were up to 50 party-goers at the Brookshire Loop home near Muldoon Road, police recently revealed. Despite multiple witnesses, detectives got their first lead about the shooting just a few days ago.
Four days after the party, a man walked into the Anchorage Correctional Complex with a gunshot wound to his arm. He told police he didn't know who shot him.
Early morning on Jan. 18, there was another party with another shooting. This time the victim was a 17-year-old girl. Police are still searching for a suspect.
Police responded to the Alaska Native Medical Center Wednesday morning and spoke with an injured man claiming he'd been shot during an encounter with two men 10 minutes earlier. Detectives could not find evidence of a shooting at the reported location; the wound may have been self-inflicted, they said.
Nearly half the shootings drug-related
Mew said drug dealers rarely call the cops when they are victims of crime. Communications director Jennifer Castro said people are taking it upon themselves to resolve conflicts, often violently, and unsolved crimes lead to others.
Tuesday's shooting, which left two people dead in an East Anchorage apartment, "stemmed from other violent crimes" that occurred in the recent past, she said. Castro also said the shooting could be gang- or drug-related.
Mew said all of the homicides and all but one of the assault cases involved marijuana and other drugs. Those other drugs run the gamut, he said -- cocaine, methamphetamine and heroin.
Kathy Lacey, sergeant of the police department's vice unit, said heroin is the most common drug her officers encounter. The powerful opiate has been a constant on the city's streets for roughly two years, she said.
Since the beginning of the year, vice officers have also seen more methamphetamine, which could be the result of bulk purchases by dealers, said Lacey.
"Marijuana is here and always will be here," she added.
Firearm use drops statewide
From 2009 to 2013, the latest annual data available, police reported an annual average of 227 assaults involving firearms, according to the federal government's Uniform Crime Reporting Program.
That total landed between 255 and 205, out of roughly 6,000 assaults known to police yearly. The UCR data does not indicate a sustained increase in assaults with guns year over year.
Statewide, over the same period of time, aggravated assaults with firearms increased from 16 percent to 17.7 percent of total crimes. The UCR program's definition of aggravated assault includes the use of a weapon, as well as displaying or threatening to use a weapon. That means not all of the reported crimes actually resulted in shootings.
Various kinds of shootings occur more often than Anchorage residents realize, said former APD homicide detective Glen Klinkhart.
"There are numerous discharges of firearms," said Klinkhart, who retired in mid-2012. "If you stay up late you'll hear those around town on occasion, but incidents where people are struck are different than drive-bys. The devil's in the details."
Is Anchorage more dangerous?
Klinkhart contends the recent shootings aren't enough to indicate a change or trend in criminal behavior. More shootings increase the likelihood of homicides, he said. Anchorage averages around 20 homicides a year.
Anchorage experienced 13 homicides in 2014, the fewest in 24 years. A year earlier, the total was 19.
"The numbers have been pretty consistent year after year," he said. "People ask me if Anchorage is more dangerous, or are they more likely to get murdered than in the past. The answer is no ... There are instances where the department is inundated with certain crimes. I have to somewhat concur with APD, and I think I have enough experience to say, there's no pattern, yet," he said.
Looking back further, violent crimes involving firearms in Alaska have decreased since 1985, at least up to 2012, according to a fact sheet published by the University of Alaska Anchorage's Justice Center. However, new data from 2013 reveals Alaska leads the nation in gun deaths, according to the Violence Police Center, a national nonprofit working to address gun death and injury.
Fact sheet author Khristy Parker noted the fact sheet references specific violent crimes -- robberies, homicides, aggravated assaults -- and does not offer a complete picture. Parker said the fact sheet could be updated later this year.
Stuart Grenier lives near Zappa Place, where three suspects forced their way into a home on Jan. 22 and shot a 26-year-old man, sending him to the hospital with what police called severe injuries.
That shooting may have been drug related, police said.
Grenier, the vice president of Northeast Community Council, said he and other members of the group tend not to pay too close of attention to drug-related shootings. They're more concerned when criminals target innocent bystanders, he said.
At the scene of Tuesday's fatal shooting, bullets pierced a bottom apartment where a family had recently moved in.
"That's not to say we aren't concerned with the killings," he said, "but there is a lot of drug activity in these neighborhoods."
Grenier and fellow council member Dave Ulmer said there have been periods of frequent violence in the area, but both said they think it's recently been worse than ever.
"These kids have disagreements and they shoot somebody," Ulmer said. "It's easier to them than fighting."
Anchorage Police Department Employees Association president Gerard Asselin said the shootings are on officers' minds, too.
"I feel and I've heard it expressed that it's probably worse than what's happened in the recent past," Asselin said. "There are times in the past that are probably equivalent, though. It certain puts into reality the dangers we're facing."
Anchorage School District Superintendent Ed Graff attended Thursday's press conference. He said afterward that he wanted to understand the chief's plans. He said he has not heard conversations about the shootings among teachers and administrators.