What’s causing Anchorage’s wave of homicides?

Anchorage Police Chief Chris Tolley addresses reporters during a brief press conference following the incident (Photo: Zachariah Hughes - Alaska Public Media, Anchorage)
Anchorage Police Chief Chris Tolley addresses reporters during a brief press conference in July of 2016. (Photo: Zachariah Hughes – Alaska Public Media, Anchorage)

24 people have been killed so far in the municipality this year. That makes 2016 the fourth deadliest year in two decades, according to data provided by the Anchorage Police Department. In July alone there were nine homicides within the city. The figures come on the heels of 2015, which saw the highest number of murders since 1995.

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Taken all together, the persistent news of violent incidents has many residents asking whether something has changed and made the city more dangerous.

During a recent interview, APD Chief Chris Tolley quickly shared a sentiment heard often in Anchorage lately.

“There’s no doubt about it,” Tolley said, seated in an office on the eighth floor of City Hall, “right now we’re having a lot of crimes. And I’m concerned, and I know the community is concerned.”

APD tracks a lot of data related to crime, and is seeing a 15 percent increase in calls for service, according to Tolley. That uptick in the overall volume includes everything from assaults to property theft to reports of suspicious activity.

But what has most people’s attention is what seems like a lot more violent crime –shootings, stabbings, and a rash of murders, twelve of them clustered around just six weeks this summer between June 27th and August 5th.

Two of the deaths this year, including one in July, were officer-involved, which some feel should not be counted alongside other homicide or non-negligent manslaughter cases.

But what concerns Tolley most about the incidents this year is the how persistently it’s young people being killed.

“We’re seeing a trend here where half the victims are under the age of 21,” he said.

Tolley is quick to point out that there is no one cause that explains all of this year’s homicides. Investigators have found no compelling evidence the murders are linked to gang activity. Mental health problems have played a prominent role in some of the events. But the most consistent factor is the presence of drugs and alcohol.

“Most of these incidents are things that went too far,” Tolley explained. “Disputes over different things, over drugs or things like that.”

30 percent of the cases are connected to domestic violence, which is up from an average closer to 20 percent, according to Tolley.

Across the municipality, neighborhood crime watch groups post information to Facebook pages, much of it unconfirmed, according to APD spokesperson Jennifer Castro. And a growing number citizens are signed up to get crime alerts sent straight to their phones. It can be easy to feel like chaos is descending, simply because a torrent of ominous information is constantly pouring in. But Tolley and other city officials are urging a bit more hesitation and consideration, based on the actual number.

Over the last decade, the homicide rate in Anchorage has fluctuated between 3.7 and 7.7 deaths per 100,000 residents. If 2016 ends with no more murders — which would be unlikely — it would equate to a rate of close to eight. By contrast, the murder rate in St. Louis last year was 59.

Tolley called a violent year like this in Anchorage a “fluke,” but does not consider it either unprecedented or an anomaly.

“Over eight and 10 year trends you do see spikes like this,” he said. “Is this one of those spikes? Probably.”

But the year is far from over, he adds.

In response to violence, particularly among young people, the department plans on relying more heavily on School Resource Officers — the police who are permanently stationed within schools — once classes resume. As staffing levels within APD rise, the department is re-evaluating its policies and procedures to find updates and efficiencies. They’re also trying to develop better lines of communication with communities.

But Tolley cautions that police are only one part of a comprehensive solution, and one that’s often called upon only in the aftermath of violence.

“This isn’t about the police department solely. It’s about our community,” Tolley said, urgency creeping into his voice. “I can’t fix this by myself, the administration can’t fix it by itself — it takes the community to take ownership over this. Police are not a substitution for health services. Police are not a solution for school teachers.”

It’s a view shared by Mayor Ethan Berkowitz’s administration, which is committed to restoring police staffing levels that saw a dramatic reduction under the previous administration.

“The police force has grown substantially over the last year. We’re almost at 400 officers now, which was the goal,” Berkowitz said during an interview.

More police officers is the starting point for improved public safety, in Berkowitz’s view, because the extra capacity means officers can be more proactive, instead of constantly responding to incidents once they’ve already occurred.

Like Tolley, the mayor sees the recent violence as beyond any single, easy explanation. However, he believes problems are being exacerbated by shrinking state support in areas that overlap with violent crime, like reduced drug and alcohol treatment options, and the release of prisoners from correctional facilities.

But Berkowitz is adamant that even amid recent upticks, Anchorage is still a relatively safe city.

“The idea that you can have a totally safe community is something we aspire to, but it’s not gonna happen,” he said of the notion that crime could be fully eradicated.

Berkowitz and Tolley also share the view that the recent violence is overwhelmingly connected to the drug trade and what the mayor calls “bad lifestyle choices.”

The other substantial piece in the administration’s approach to community policing has been trying to foster and rebuild community partnerships.

“The community also has a responsibility to help the police do their job,” Berkowitz said.

But some see the administration’s manner so far as more dictatorial than an equal partnership.

“If our community is not involved in providing the solutions, then we’re already missing the peace,” said Mao Tosi, a community advocate who’s been deeply involved with the city’s anti-gang efforts and supporting at-risk youth.

His diagnosis traces the escalation in violent crime to cuts in social services and opportunities for low income communities started in 2009 under the administration of Mayor Dan Sullivan. Those reductions to services and staff haven’t yet been recouped, according to Tosi.

“So we have less police officers,” he said, counting off lessened support in the last few years. “In our school district they’re cutting funds in our education, so we have less teachers, less programming.”

“All these things are almost the perfect storm of issues coming together,” Tosi added.

He supports the administration’s efforts to pursue a better community policing model, but thinks that after several years of worsening relations between APD and communities experiencing the heaviest toll from violent crime the gap is dauntingly wide. Efforts at improved communication are great, but he says that so far policy has come from the top floor of city hall, without enough input from those closest to what’s happening on the street.