With a surge in vehicle thefts in Anchorage, some residents are taking matters into their own hands.
One group mobilizing through Facebook is reuniting stolen vehicles with their owners. Members of the A Team, as they call themselves, say they are filling a void left by overworked police.
Anchorage police, though, say the A Team has raised concerns about vigilantism that has the potential to be unsafe for its members and the public.
On a recent afternoon, the A Team watched over a stolen pickup in a quiet neighborhood of single-family homes on Cobblecreek Circle, waiting for police officers to arrive.
“We’ve been sitting on a stolen Chevy truck that was stolen last night, early this morning,” Floyd Hall, the heart of the A Team, said.
Hall, 52, sports a dark gray beard and a baseball cap. Some call him a hero. Others say he’s a vigilante. Either way, he’s got this down to a science.
“We’re sitting across the cul-de-sac from it, so we try to stay in sight of it, so we can watch it,” Hall said.
There are only five people on the A Team — the A stands for Anchorage, by the way — but many, many more people feed them tips via Facebook. There is plenty to keep them busy: Police say there have been more than 2,000 stolen vehicles in Anchorage so far this year, already surpassing the number stolen last year and more than double previous years.
The A Team has recovered about 30 vehicles in the past 18 months or so, Hall said.
The case of the maroon Chevy Silverado on Cobblecreek Circle is a perfect example of how the group works: The owner posted a photo of the pickup to the Facebook group “Stolen in Alaska.” Less than 24 hours later, a woman who follows the page saw it parked in front of her neighbor’s house. She called police and also, in her own post, let the Facebook group know.
The pickup’s owner saw the post and messaged Hall. Hall arrived a half-hour before the police, and since then has been “sitting” on it, as they say.
“If someone’s in it, we call APD, 911, and let ’em know it’s occupied, but most of the time they’re not occupied and we let ’em know that we’re close by watching,” Hall said.
Hall saw a man run away from the house earlier, he said, but the man is gone. By the time the police arrive, there was nobody for the police to question or arrest.
Hall was low-key, but it sounded like he’s been in some pretty hairy situations before.
“We try not to confront anybody. It’s about getting the vehicles back, you know? Let the cops confront the people,” Hall said.
But do confrontations happen?
“I was shot at, probably a month ago. But I had followed a stolen vehicle,” Hall said.
As Hall was talking, an officer walked over to his fellow A Team member, Chad Martin. The officers reminded Martin that, by law, he was supposed to tell them about his handgun, the one in a holster on his hip.
“What I want, just put you hands on the car for me,” the officer said. “I’m just going to take that firearm off you for right now, OK? Because you know you’re supposed to tell us about it.”
“I forgot,” Martin said.
Police Sgt. Jason Allen took Martin about 20 feet away from Hall to talk. Martin seemed confused.
“What’s this all about sir?” Martin asked.
“I’m a little concerned about your group. And about the fact that you guys are armed and you’re not notifying police officers about it,” Allen told Martin.
The discussion goes on for a few minutes, and Sgt. Allen eventually let Martin off with a warning.
Their conversation, though, got at something bigger. Remember the car chase Hall described? Well, the only charges in that case are for reckless driving, and they’re filed against him.
According to the charges, Hall chased the car going more than 60 mph in a 25 mph zone on a one-way street, heading the wrong way. It was near where a kids’ soccer team was practicing. The charges don’t mention any gunshots.
Still, that’s the conundrum with the A-Team: They’re helping get back stolen vehicles, but police say what they’re doing is risky for themselves and innocent bystanders.
After he said all this to Martin, Sgt. Allen refused an interview request. But Police Chief Justin Doll sat down for an interview later.
“Chasing down suspects is not helpful. It actually, in a lot of ways, creates a lot more work for the police department,” Doll said.
Doll said he understands the frustration over vehicle thefts and why people might support what the A Team is doing.
“But I don’t think that support’s going to last if one of those people hurts or kills some innocent people who are going about their daily routine and aren’t involved at all,” Doll said.
Tips on stolen vehicles or other property should be sent to the police, so they can handle it, Doll said.
The department is growing its ranks, Doll said, and that’s aimed at least in part at decreasing response times. Still, he said, even with more officers on the streets, police will always respond to crimes that threaten people before crimes that threaten property.
“I get that,” Hall said. “I’d rather them go to be on a shooting or a domestic violence (call) than an unoccupied stolen vehicle. They’re doing what they can, you know. I’ve got nothing against APD. They’re great guys. They’re doing their jobs.”
But, Hall said the police simply cannot keep up with the volume of stolen cars and trucks.
Why does Hall feel like he’s the one that needs to do this?
“Why not? You know, I mean, do what you can. I was raised to do what’s right, I guess,” Hall said.