While the Anchorage Daily News has provided extensive coverage of opioid-related crimes — from thefts to murders — we'd like to highlight some of the work that our community is doing to restore public safety. It's too late now to prevent the opioid epidemic and the crime that it creates. But we can and should implement policies and programs to reduce crime, minimize local impacts of opioid addiction and keep our communities safe.
First and most importantly, the Municipality of Anchorage has hired approximately 65 new police officers, fulfilling a promise made by Mayor Berkowitz. Members of the Anchorage Assembly deserve credit for supporting budgets that funded police academies to recruit and train these officers. We are fortunate to live in a community that strongly supports its police force. Local government leadership has also expanded support for investigations into drug crime and homicides. More police officers overall mean that some of the force can once again focus on complex investigations, and that's a good thing for our community. Previous Mayor Dan Sullivan's cuts to the police force were damaging, but now we're back on the right track.
Second, the municipality has taken important steps to reduce vagrancy and homelessness, which are related to property crime. The mayor and Assembly crafted a comprehensive anti-homelessness initiative which has taken approximately 100 homeless people off the streets. Data from across the country show that these "housing first" programs save money and improve public safety, and Anchorage's program has been implemented thoughtfully, with extensive community input.
In addition to reducing homelessness, the mayor and Assembly have taken action to remove vagrants' camps in greenbelt parks. Many times, these camps are occupied by criminals, not homeless people. By removing camps, the municipality is disrupting property crime networks that have plagued our community. Clearly, this is a challenging and long-term effort. Maintaining safe parks means not just removing camps but continuing to increase positive, law-abiding uses. Municipal park improvements have already made a significant contribution to safer parks. For example, the park at Campbell Creek and Lake Otis used to be plagued by drug dealers, but infrastructure improvements have brought in so many families that drug dealers no longer lurk in the park. Similar infrastructure improvements will bring more law-abiding citizens into the Chester and Campbell Creek trail corridors as part of the 2018 parks bond package.
Many factors are outside of the Anchorage mayor and Assembly's control: The state Senate will need to support a balanced budget with adequate revenue if we're ever going to have sufficient public safety staffing in Anchorage and throughout the state. Proposals by congressional Republicans to gut Medicaid would dramatically worsen the opioid epidemic by reducing the availability of addiction treatment, and by worsening poverty.
While these are challenging circumstances, Anchorage's local government has been creative and aggressive in confronting the crime wave. It may not be possible to get crime levels back down to acceptable levels quickly, but local leaders are implementing the right policies to start restoring public safety.
Zack Fields and Christina Grande have worked with community councils along the Chester Creek greenbelt, advocating for removal of illegal camps, expanded police patrols and enhanced trail infrastructure in the park system as part of a comprehensive effort to improve public safety.
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