The Mayor of Anchorage addresses concern over crime and safety

Anchorage Mayor Ethan Berkowitz at a press conference last July announcing a new DUI unit. (Photo by Wesley Early, Alaska Public Media – Anchorage)

Anchorage had a record number of homicides last year and is on pace to possibly surpass that number this year. Mayor Ethan Berkowitz took some heat for comments he made last week when he said residents who were not involved in drugs or out after midnight were safe. He apologized a day later, saying he wishes he could undo those comments. He said when crime happens to someone in the city, he feels the weight.

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BERKOWITZ: And it’s important to make sure that people who are victims by crime or concerned about crime know that I have that sympathy, and that I have that understanding. And I need to make sure that I convey that at all times.

TOWNSEND: What are you hearing, Mayor, from residents about their level of concern over safety? People should be able to expect the city to be safe, no matter what time of day it is.

BERKOWITZ: You know, there’s different ways of answering that question. I’ve always looked at the ability to generate a safe community is dependent on what we’re doing to prevent crime, what we’re doing to police it, how are we prosecuting it, what sort of punishments are in place, and the city only has the ability to exert levels on the policing. We have very little prosecutorial power. Most of the crime, the serious crime in the state, is charged at the state or at the federal level so… We’re also contending with the fact that we have an opioid epidemic and we are way short of the prevention piece here in terms of the detox facilities as well as the outreach.

TOWNSEND: As you’re well aware, we have Nixle alerts that go out. There’s a lot of social media sites, Facebook, Next Door, there’s other sites… Do you find those helpful or do they fuel the perception that crime is rampant?

BERKOWITZ: Well, police have been very appreciative of the help they receive from the public. They’ve been able to generate leads and successfully apprehend and arrest people who have committed crimes through Nixle. There’s also the reality that when people are intensely aware of everything that’s going on in a community, those concerns tend to become exacerbated. There’s a lot of really great things that are happening in Anchorage right now. We’ve grown the police department. We’re gonna have some more detox facilities come online. The state hopefully will resolve its fiscal gap and we’ll be able to start to put more prosecutors back online and sort of restore the troopers to the levels that they had historically been. So, there are a lot of things that are good that are happening. We sometimes when we’re caught in the social media world, we just see a small piece of the bigger picture.

TOWSEND: There’s been a lot of debate about SB91. A lot of people seem to be blaming an uptick in petty theft and property crimes on SB 91 and a perceived inability by law enforcement to make arrests. What’s your take on that perspective?

BERKOWITZ: There’s a lot of contributing factors to what’s going on. Senate Bill 91 isn’t even what they intended it to be. Senate Bill 91 was intended to replace incarceration with rehabilitation. They restricted the discretion that police officers and prosecutors have, which I think is an unfortunate step. But they didn’t back-fill at the same time with putting the rehabilitation resources in place. So in a little bit, we’ve not even seen SB91 the way it was created. We’re seeing half of SB91 and that’s part of the problem. But this is an instance where the state would allow the municipality to do more things for ourselves, and not dictate to us at the local levels how things should be policed and prosecuted, then I think we’d have a better ability to take care of the situation here.

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Lori Townsend is the News Director for the Alaska Public Radio Network. She got her start in broadcasting at the age of 11 as the park announcer of the fast pitch baseball games in Deer Park, Wisconsin. She has worked in print and broadcast journalism for more than 24 years. She was the co-founder and former Editor of Northern Aspects, a magazine featuring northern Wisconsin writers and artists. She worked for 7 years at tribal station WOJB on the Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibway Reservation in Wisconsin, first as an on-air programmer and special projects producer and eventually News Director. In 1997 she co-hosted a continuing Saturday afternoon public affairs talk program on station KSTP in St. Paul, Minnesota. Radio brought her to Alaska where she worked as a broadcast trainer for Native fellowship students at Koahnic Broadcasting. Following her work there, she helped co-found the non-profit broadcast company Native Voice Communications. NVC created the award-winning Independent Native News as well as producing many other documentaries and productions. Townsend was NVC’s technical trainer and assistant producer of INN. Through her freelance work, she has produced news and feature stories nationally and internationally for Independent Native News, National Native News, NPR , Pacifica, Monitor Radio, Radio Netherlands and AIROS. Her print work and interviews have been published in News from Indian Country, Yakama Nation Review and other publications. Ms. Townsend has also worked as a broadcast trainer for the Native American Journalist’s Association and with NPR’s Doug Mitchell and as a freelance editor. Townsend is the recipient of numerous awards for her work from the Alaska Press Club, the Native American Journalists Association and a gold and a silver reel award from the National Federation of Community Broadcasters. Townsend was the recipient of a Fellowship at the Metcalf Institute for Marine and Environmental Reporting in Rhode Island as well as a fellowship at the Knight Digital Media Center in Berkeley. She is an avid reader, a rabid gardener and counts water skiing, training horses, diving and a welding certification among her past and current interests. ltownsend (at) alaskapublic (dot) org  |  907.550.8452 | About Lori