Plenty of Southcentral Alaska residents are frustrated with crime. They have a right to be. A wave of property crime during the past five years, fueled by an opioid epidemic and exacerbated by a decline in prosecutions, left many Alaskans feeling law and order were a thing of the past. And although increased numbers of Anchorage police officers and prosecutors, as well as law changes, have helped ease the notion that nothing is being done, vehicle theft and property crime rates in Anchorage remain stubbornly high, well above national averages. So it’s not surprising that some residents have tried to take matters into their own hands by following suspected thieves, confronting them and even attempting to perform citizens’ arrests or recover in some cases.
But vigilante actions aren’t the answer to Anchorage’s crime problem. And the self-styled “good guys” who see themselves as helping police are courting disaster.
Despite the spike in vehicle thefts, Anchorage police say that 90 percent of stolen cars and trucks are eventually recovered. And while that’s cold comfort for those who don’t get their vehicles back (or, in some cases, do see them recovered in an inoperable state), it’s not the Wild West, and we shouldn’t behave as though it is. Chasing (or, to use the euphemistic language employed by some, “following”) after someone who has committed a crime and is at the wheel of a 3,000-pound deadly weapon isn’t performing a public service, it’s an exercise in reckless endangerment.
Even those who have been chasing after car thieves as a hobby for years simply don’t have the expertise, training or resources to ensure they and others will be safe when they engage others on Anchorage roadways. We give that responsibility and exclusive right to police. Believing you have the expertise to safely handle a situation involving an irrational and dangerous person at the wheel of a vehicle as big as a rhinoceros and capable of speeds greater than 100 mph is a hubris exceeding that of Timothy Treadwell, who believed he could walk among grizzly bears unharmed because of his demeanor.
Like it or not, vehicle theft is a big, complex problem. It’s fed by drug addiction, organized crime rings and a black market for vehicles, parts and raw materials. During years of state budget cuts, thieves were emboldened by a reduction in public safety officers and prosecutors to handle nonviolent crime. And the problem was worsened by a botched implementation of criminal justice reform bill Senate Bill 91, later corrected in large part via Senate Bill 54. There’s a romance to the notion that one person with a sense of justice and a steel jaw can track down the bad guys where the police are failing; it appeals to our Alaska sense of rugged individualism and our suspicion of centralized authority. But if the problem were that easy to solve, it wouldn’t persist in the face of the best efforts of many officers who are deputized to handle those crimes, to say nothing of those who aren’t.
This isn’t to say that Alaskans don’t have a place in helping law enforcement combat crime. Although social media community watch groups have contributed to residents’ fears that Anchorage is becoming a more lawless place because of increased awareness of crime, those same groups are valuable for alerting neighbors to potential crime and coordinating efforts to root out bad actors in our neighborhoods. And Report Every Dangerous Driver Immediately (REDDI) reports that help officers located impaired or reckless drivers are an excellent example of citizen engagement and cooperation that doesn’t cross the line into endangering people.
More recently, Anchorage residents who have helped out by standing watch at local trailheads to ward off those who would break into vehicles there are providing a valuable public service. In keeping with best practices of aiding law enforcement, they document potential illegal activity and contact police if necessary, but don’t directly intervene. Along with volunteer monitors who keep an eye out for illegal activity on the municipal trail system, it’s an excellent example of how safety-minded Anchorage residents can do their part without unduly endangering themselves or others.
The police are often slower than we’d like. They have enough on their plate that they can’t always devote full focus to a particular theft or suspicious person. And they aren’t often as good at tooting their own horns on social media as vigilantes and their cheerleaders. But they get the job done an impressive amount of the time under difficult conditions, and they have the training to know when to use force, when to engage in a pursuit — and, just as importantly, when not to. As much as Anchorage may sometimes seem like the Wild West, people don’t help the situation when they act like cowboys.