Anchorage has a new police chief.
On Monday, former Drug Enforcement Administration agent Chris Tolley took over from Chief Mark Mew, who had been with the city in various positions for since 1983, including five years at the helm of the Anchorage Police Department. Mew presided over the department during one of its most politically embattled periods, and is handing the force off with clear guidance on where it needs to go.
A large part of Mew’s legacy, and one he’s proud of, is how the department communicates with the public it serves through measures like Nixle alerts, miniature press releases that get sent straight to in-boxes and smart phones around the city.
“We didn’t used to share that kind of stuff,” Mew said during a recent interview. APD also began sharing data with the University of Alaska on 20 years of officer-involved shootings and use-of-force incidents, and has put its revised departmental policies online–steps many departments around the country have gone to court to avoid.
It’s not transparency for its own sake: Mew sees a good relationship with the public as a practical necessity for an effective police force, an essential part of a comprehensive community policing approach.
But “community policing” is a fuzzy term. Along with “staffing” it has become a buzz word the last few years as the police force has been used like a football in Anchorage’s city politics. Mew wants to have enough officers on staff that about 40 percent of their time is unobligated, meaning they can build relationships and cases, rather than scrambling to the next call. Those were specific recommendations in the enormous 2010 Police Executive Research Forum report, which has loomed large in discussions of how to deploy public safety resources over the last half decade.
“That’s what we mean when we mean proactive, community policing,” Mew said of the PERF report recommendations. “And I hope that my successor’s going to have the opportunity to maximize those kind of notions.”
Enter Chris Tolley. “What you probably want to know about me are three things,” Tulley said at the start of an interview. “Number one: I’m a husband and a father. I’m a neighbor. And that I’ve dedicated my life to public service through law enforcement.”
As of this week, Tolley is the city’s new police chief. He’s been in charge of the DEA’s operations in Alaska since 2012, but his career started as a police officer in Baltimore in 1979.
“I handled just about every type of crime you can image, anything from simple loitering to rapes and homicides,” Tolley said. After six years, his ambition led him to pursue federal work.
“I actually left the department and went to law school for a short period of time,” Tolley said, “and that’s where I was recruited by DEA.”
Tolley liked that even as a junior agent at DEA he could take lead on a case. After a stint in Virginia, Tolley was part of an operation in the early 90s that cleared marijuana crops in Hawaii using helicopters (Tolley said it limited risks from armed encounters and booby traps). He held several different appointments around the globe, from Hong Kong to California, and eventually looped back to lead the domestic cannabis eradication program at DEA headquarters in 2009.
But Tolley says the public shouldn’t read into his resume that he’s out to crack down on marijuana users in Anchorage during his tenure. Rather, he believes his past with the DEA gives him insights into how to tackle complex cases involving organized crime, money laundering, gun violations, and multi-agency collaboration.
Which begs the question: How is any of this related to running a local police department guided by a mayoral prerogative to improve community policing?
“When you walk into a DEA office,” Tolley replied, “you’re going to see a number of people and think ‘oh they’re all agents, agents of the federal government.’ Not so.”
The DEA in Alaska regularly partners with detectives from APD, the State Troopers, airport police, and other federal agencies, which Tolley said makes him well acquainted with multifaceted investigations involving a wide array of partners.
Tolley’s version of community policing, similar to his predecessor’s, starts with rebuilding the size of the police force, aspiring to recruit enough officers that APD can eventually support up to 400 officers. But a challenge the department faces is filling police academies, particularly with people who reflect Anchorage’s own diversity. Tulley says that is where his community policing mandate begins.
“I’m going to work with the community and ask them to identify their neighbors, their family members, and persuade them to commit to public service.” Asked whether that meant engaging at the Community Council level, through schools, door-knocking or other such measures, Tolley replied all options were on the table.
“Every opportunity we get. Such as right now. I’m going to take advantage of the opportunity: Anybody that’s interested in knowing more about being a police officer please go to www.joinapd.org.”
The department is taking the rare step of holding three academies within one year.
APD is also bringing up the same consultant who originally worked on the 2010 PERF report to update it later in the month. That document will remain central to decisions about resource allocation and mission within the department.