"What the hell is going on here?"
That's the kitchen-table question people in Anchorage are asking this year as 33 homicides and thousands of car thefts underscored both the reality of rising crime rates and the perception of them, stoked by the 24/7 social media narrative of siren-chasing and suspicious characters.
Yes, the fear can be out of proportion to the threat. Historically, property crime rates have been higher in Anchorage. But the recent spikes in shoplifting and vehicle thefts and a homicide rate that might set the all-time record make it clear: Both the crime and the question are for real.
Further, there's a sense that criminals have become more brazen, that deterrence in both police presence and sentencing has weakened and that Anchorage is simply not as safe as it used to be.
That's why, rightly, there was a scathing response to the comment by Mayor Ethan Berkowitz after the triple homicide at The Bullion Brothers in Spenard: "I understand the concern; we've got our work cut out for us. But if you're not engaged in drug trafficking and not out after midnight, it's a very safe city."
The remark suggested that after the clock strikes 12, let the citizen beware, as if we're ceding the wolf hours to the wolves. And it wasn't a good answer to the question at the top.
The mayor apologized for any insensitivity in the wake of the daytime triple homicide and for any sense he might have given that any time or place in Anchorage shouldn't be safe. In truth, the mayor was only saying what police have long pointed out here — your chances of being murdered or otherwise a victim of violent crime are greatly diminished if you don't travel in the same circles as some of the city's worst actors.
That's common sense. But it's also true that people have been victimized well outside those circles. To a long-suffering merchant dealing with shoplifting or a couple suddenly bereft of their car, numbers and probabilities don't matter. When somebody calls 911 they don't want to be told to go online and fill out a form. When somebody calls 911 they don't like to hear the most urgent need in their life at the moment assigned a number in a triage exercise, no matter how unavoidable that exercise is for police.
And when they've been victimized repeatedly, as some merchants and others have been, they tend to have little patience for discussions about alternatives to incarceration or how criminal justice reform will work out in the long term.
People want to be safe — and feel safe — to go about their daily lives, and they want to see justice done.
By all accounts, drugs drive much of the property crime in Anchorage; drug dealing is part of many of the homicides. Drugs change the equation in public safety. Deterrence may be less of a factor for those feeding an addiction, but deterrence still makes a difference, and the apparent lack of it in sentencing was a force in the recent amendments to criminal justice reform by the Alaska Legislature.
It's a complicated business, involving legislation, staffing in the courts, deciding what crimes and criminals to prosecute and the severity of sentences; drug treatment and education; prevention and after-school programs. While the discussion continues in Juneau, Anchorage needs its leaders to find solutions for today, not just the long term.
One simple aspect that the city administration can control is on the right track: Provide more police officers.
Anchorage now has more than 400 sworn officers on duty. That's good news, especially given the crime suppression initiatives described by Chief of Police Justin Doll over the past year, which include both a new investigative unit, additional detectives, a restructured drug investigations command along with more officers walking beats and doing regular patrols.
But it can't just be more officers. The city's limited resources need to be deployed in a focused, strategic way that addresses crime at all levels. The people of Anchorage don't care how many officers are on duty when they're being victimized at historic rates.
Anchorage's leaders need to develop and communicate a clear, comprehensive strategy to prevent, combat and investigate crime in this city.
Have some officers concentrate on homicide, drugs and sexual assault cases; deploy others to get to know neighborhoods and communities, build relationships and trust with people.
APD can't control every aspect of public safety, but something must be done because this surge of crime can't continue. Our police are both the presence that deters crime and the first responders when the call goes out for help. We need more of them, and they need to be deployed strategically. The swifter and more effective the response — and the steadier and more consistent the presence — the safer the city will be.
BOTTOM LINE: City leaders must have a clear, effective program to cut crime in Anchorage — and communicate that clearly to citizens.