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Near-record homicides in Anchorage show little public safety progress

  • Author: Anchorage Daily News editorial board
    | Opinion
  • Updated: January 4
  • Published January 4

There were at least 34 homicides in the Municipality of Anchorage in 2019, making it one of the worst yet for the city. Only 2017 saw more homicide deaths with a total of 37 (plus two deaths in officer-involved shootings); last year tied 2016 for second place (since 1995) with 34 homicide deaths. It’s a sobering statistic that shows just how much work we have to do to turn our public safety issues around.

There’s some inherent fluctuation in homicide rates, partly because their numbers relative to other crimes are so low. Anchorage has tens of thousands of reported property crimes per year, for instance, and thousands of assaults. When it comes to homicides, the number typically falls between two dozen to three dozen, so even one more or fewer can make a big difference. But homicides are a statistic worth watching because of their outsize impact on a community: Taking a life is the most serious crime against a person, and just one murder in a neighborhood can mean residents who previously felt safe no longer feel that way.

And by that measure, Anchorage isn’t doing very well, despite a focus on public safety at both the municipal and state levels. The past four years were the highest four years for Anchorage homicide numbers since 1995, and although 2018′s dip to 30 homicides was briefly heartening, the substantial increase in 2019 shows that downward movement wasn’t necessarily indicative of a longer-term trend.

So what can Alaska do about the unacceptably high rate of homicides in the state’s largest city? Quite a few things, some of which are already underway.

Murder is a crime often born of other crimes: People kill each other over drugs, or while drunk, in escalating patterns of domestic abuse, or in disputes over property. The homicide rate is also exacerbated by unaddressed social maladies, such as untreated mental illness. The bad news is that there’s no one silver bullet that will make homicides drop dramatically; the good news is that tackling any number of the contributing factors can start to make inroads. Getting more illicit drugs off the street, for instance, could mean fewer people putting themselves or others in harm’s way while seeking those drugs.

In some areas, the municipality and state are taking appropriate steps to bring forces to bear on the problem. Both the state and city have increased funding for law enforcement officers, increasing front-line capacity — now at more than 400 sworn officers — in dealing with homicides and other crimes. But that drive has yet to bear fruit in reducing the homicide rate, demonstrating the difficulty of preventing violent crimes and the need to tackle their underlying causes. The municipality in particular has made a harder push in recent years to reduce homelessness (though as of the last count, the number of people experiencing homelessness in Anchorage remained stubbornly high), including the enlisting of private foundation funding to help get some of Anchorage’s most vulnerable residents — and potential victims — into housing that will leave them less exposed to violence.

But in other areas, even a heightened focus and more funding has yet to show meaningful progress. The state recognized its flagship mental health facility, Alaska Psychiatric Institute, was in crisis. But despite spending more money and contracting with private firm Wellpath to help turn the facility around, API is still struggling, operating well below capacity and leaving many Alaskans with unmet mental health needs.

Even if more resources are brought to bear on each of the factors contributing to our high homicide numbers, turning Anchorage’s problem around won’t be easy, nor is it likely to be fast. But that simply means it’s all the more crucial to fight hard and start now, because every day that passes without progress is one more where Anchorage residents are less likely to feel safe.

And don’t we deserve to feel safe in our city?