With a spike in shootings and homicides in Anchorage since the start of the year, legislators in Juneau heard testimony Friday on why violent crime appears to be rising, and what assistance state law-makers may be able to provide through appropriations.
Senators from Southcentral Alaska like Democrat Bill Wielechowski of Anchorage want to know what is driving the 33 shootings and 10 homicides in the city this year.
“What can we do? What’s the problem? And is it something we should be involved in?” Wielechowski asked. It’s why he and others requested a session to get background information and hear potential action items.
The Judiciary committee heard testimony on a range of issues, from drugs and gangs to staffing levels. Anchorage Mayor Dan Sullivan explained to the body that reducing the size of the police force during his tenure was a necessity given the financial situation his administration inherited.
“We agree with virtually all the speakers about staffing levels,” Sullivan said by phone. “You guys right now are going through a big challenge regarding budget. Well, I went through that big challenge, too, when I came into office in 2009. And when you’re facing multi-million dollar deficits you have to take some steps to make sure your budget is in balance while also focusing on your priorities.”
Sullivan pushed back against perceptions that crime is on the rise. He cites statistics showing overall crime has been on a years-long decline in Anchorage. He also says the total number of crimes reported today is less than it was decades ago when Anchorage’s population was significantly smaller.
But Detective Jeff Bell offered a very different view, telling legislators the focus on Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) statistics says more about the city’s approach to policing than it does about crimes taking place. Bell told lawmakers the type of proactive policing conducted by the city’s gang and theft units years ago works well, but does not necessarily look good on paper.
“You’re not going see those numbers in the UCR, because we don’t report what we don’t know, and we don’t know how many crimes were prevented by us being proactive,” said Bell. “And there’s just no way of measuring that.”
Bell is vice president of the Anchorage Police Department Employees Association, the officers union that has been critical of Sullivan’s controversial AO-37 proposal and the administration’s approach to public safety.
Based on the testimony, Wielechowski thinks the issue is fundamentally one of resources. He’s considering allocations in the budget like a grant to help cover costs from extra over-time. Although Wielechowski concedes that new expenditures are not an easy sell in the current fiscal environment.