Amid a recent upsurge in homicides and other violent crime, Anchorage's candidates for mayor generally agree on one thing: The city needs more cops.
At a Thursday public safety forum, the would-be mayors also discussed detox and "Housing First" facilities, redevelopment in downtown Anchorage, and domestic and sexual violence in the Alaska Native community. But one consensus that emerged was that the Anchorage Police Department needs to be beefed up.
"I'd just hire more cops," said former Democratic state Rep. Ethan Berkowitz.
"We know we're not staffing appropriately," said Assembly member Amy Demboski, who later added that the police department should add staff as well as specialty units.
Dan Coffey, a lawyer and former Anchorage Assembly member, said he would hold regular police academies and build the number of officers to 400, up from the current 358. He was the only candidate to state a target number of officers during the forum, though Berkowitz's campaign sent out a press release Friday saying that Berkowitz would restore staffing to 2010 levels.
Berkowitz also held up a copy of a 2009-2013 strategic plan for APD and said the city should "follow the recipe in here." Andrew Halcro, meanwhile, said the city should work with nonprofits that do crime prevention and intervention work.
The forum, hosted by a community group called We Are Anchorage, stemmed from concerns over a spate of shootings in recent months. It was not a debate, and candidates were not immediately asked follow-up questions to explain how they would achieve goals like adding police officers or bolstering community policing. Audience members did get a chance to ask questions at the end.
During the forum portion, candidates were given one minute to respond to a limited pool of questions randomly pulled from buckets.
In addition to more staffing, candidates said they supported more detox facilities as well as the "Housing First" model, which gives chronic inebriates a place to live whether or not they're ready to stop drinking.
"Wet housing works," said Halcro, the former president of the Anchorage Chamber of Commerce.
Coffey said he supports increasing the number of detox facilities in Anchorage, but he said detox alone won't solve problems associated with alcohol and drug abuse. He called facilities like Karluk Manor "an absolutely working way in which to deal with this," but he said it demands resources.
"If we commit to do it … it's like the police: The resources have to be there," Coffey said.
Demboski said she has been meeting with Alaska Native tribal elders to discuss access to federal funding for detox, mental health, job training and housing facilities.
There were some diverging opinions. Berkowitz said an APD officer should be patrolling the area around Brother Francis Shelter on Third Avenue; Demboski said it's not APD's job to "babysit" the shelter, and that responsibility falls on the social services organization that runs the facility.
Through questioning, Coffey, Berkowitz and Timothy Huit all discussed strengthening preventive or community policing, or the idea that patrol officers can tackle crime through community relationships and beat work rather than solely making arrests. The question from moderator Liz Medicine Crow noted that a certain amount of discretionary time is required for officers, which is tied to staffing levels. Coffey, citing unnamed studies, said the department needs at least 400 officers to "even attempt community policing."
In APD today, there are 358 sworn officers, though about 35 are still in training, according to Anchorage police spokeswoman Jennifer Castro. Seven positions are unfilled. An academy planned for May is expected to be full, Castro said.
Mayor Dan Sullivan said in a brief phone interview Friday that while the number of police officers has declined, crime has trended downward in the last five years. He said budget constrictions in the aftermath of the national recession and incentives for retirement were among the factors contributing to low staffing levels.
"It's how you deploy, not how many you have," Sullivan said. But he acknowledged that lower staffing hampered the department's efforts in recent years to shift to a more community-based policing approach.
Candidate Lance Ahern, currently the city's chief information officer, said in his closing statement that technology could be better incorporated into local policing. He said he envisioned a system where members of the public could use smartphone technology and send text messages or photographs to police dispatchers.
During the question-and-answer session with audience members, several people expressed concern that the police department didn't reflect the diversity of the community.
Coffey said the community should be more involved in selecting police officers, "without destroying the way in which we select police officers." Berkowitz said there should be better language access, and Halcro said a change to the retirement package a decade ago has added to recruitment challenges.
Another audience member asked about the racial diversity of the police department and a lack of representation from minorities. In 2013, 84.3 percent of the department's sworn officers were white, according to a December 2013 report by the University of Alaska Anchorage that analyzed officer-involved shootings.
Berkowitz said the focus should be recruiting from the community. Earlier in the forum, Huit, a roofer who has also worked as a street outreach coordinator for Brother Francis Shelter, said that if the department doesn't focus on recruiting locally and from different cultural groups, "we're going to continue to have problems."
During the forum, two people brought up Uber, the ride-sharing service. That issue pitted Coffey against Halcro.
Coffey said Uber was welcome as long as the company was required to have commercial insurance and assurances that passengers would be safe. Halcro, calling Coffey a "lifetime lobbyist for the taxi industry," said the city should elect a mayor that "actually wants to invite innovative companies to Anchorage."