Since the start of the year, Anchorage has seen eight homicides and a spate of shootings. Today, officials say the incidents in Alaska’s largest city is a spike, but not an overall rise in violent crime. The press conference at City Hall was, just hours after a stabbing victim was pronounced dead following an early morning dispute. The pronouncement is at odds with a widespread concerns over public safety.
While the Anchorage Police Department can’t point to any one cause, Deputy Chief Myron Fanning says in his 23 years on the force he’s seen waves of violent crime like this before.
“Occasionally you’ll have a spike, and sometimes we’re able to identify the reasons, and sometimes not,” Fanning said.
A task force assembled in February made up of federal, state, and local agencies has made 26 arrests, and solved all but one of the recent homicide cases, Fanning said. In the process they’ve seized hard drugs like heroin and methamphetamine, 40 illegal guns, and $35,000 in cash. But Fanning says while there are similarities in the homicide cases, they aren’t connected by any pattern.
“I mean, like I said, they’re all high-risk type lifestyles that they’re involved in–they all are either associated with drugs or alcohol,” Fanning said. “But I don’t know why last January we had two, and this January we had four, I don’t know, it just happens sometimes like that.”
Fanning said the task force continues investigating January’s double homicide in East Anchorage.
Mayor Dan Sullivan echoed the high profile crimes being a blip rather than an upward trend. Looking at the data, Sullivan said, it’s important to not miss the forest for the trees, as Anchorage’s five-year average for major crimes continues to fall.
“There’s fewer crimes reported now than there were 30 years ago when we were 120,000 people fewer in this city,” he said. “2014, for example, we saw the lowest number of murders in 20 years in Anchorage. And we always caution folks when they see a spike in one activity or another that it doesn’t really mean Anchorage has somehow become more dangerous. We look at trends, and the trends are very good.”
That is a hard sell when concerns over public safety are emerging as the biggest political issue in this year’s mayor’s race. Sullivan’s approach to staffing levels at APD has been controversial. Two years-worth of academies canceled during his tenure to curb spending have meant a smaller force. During a recent forum on public safety all eight candidates in attendance agreed on the need for more police officers, though details on paying for them remain hazy.
What you do with those officers is a trickier question. Sullivan said it is inaccurate to assume more police necessarily leads to less crime.
In fact, he said the numbers prove you can have an effective force by just apportioning man-hours differently. According to Fanning, a combination of flex time and using local partnerships helped the police department quickly make arrests without racking up overtime hours. What’s less clear in the numbers is whether the resources are there to proactively have police out in Anchorage’s neighborhoods before violence occurs.