The state’s top law-enforcement officials are rolling out a new initiative aimed at curbing violent crime in Alaska. At its heart is more collaboration between federal, state and local officials. But the majority of policy measures are aimed at crime in Anchorage, without many new measures for rural Alaska or areas outside the state’s largest city.
At a press conference in the downtown Anchorage Federal Building, acting U.S. Attorney Bryan Schroder stood side-to-side with the heads of several state and federal law agencies. Alaska Public Media’s Zachariah Hughes was there, and joined Lori Townsend to talk about what to expect in this new initiative.
TOWNSEND: So, first of all, what new measures were announced today?
HUGHES: “Alaska Anti-Violent Crime Strategy.” There are a few different steps. But basically it’s an effort between a lot of federal agencies that have a presence in the state – DEA, ATF, Homeland Security – and getting them into closer coordination with state and local partners on violent crime.
As far as specifics, we heard about a couple of initiatives. For every murder and shooting that happens in Anchorage, there’ll be what’s called a Federal Duty officer sent out to the scene, the idea being that they can help with intelligence or general assistance. Likewise, a ballistics task force is going to be reviewing evidence from shootings to look for patterns and potentially aid with prosecutions. There are also going to be programs aimed at identifying violent offenders for federal prosecution, a new partnership between State Troopers and a federal prosecutor, along with some expanded re-entry and anti-recidivism efforts.
TOWNSEND: And what about the timing of this? It seems like there’s been a lot of news lately about reorganization within the police department, and talks of re-legislating Senate Bill 91. Where does this initiative fit with other efforts happening around the state?
HUGHES: Well, Acting District Attorney Schroeder says this strategy has been in the works for months. But it dovetails with an announcement by Attorney General Jeff Sessions that the Justice Department wants U.S. Attorney’s offices all over the country to come up with plans for combating a nationwide uptick in crime. Part of that is the revival in something called “Project Safe Neighborhoods,” which was introduced 15 years ago, and has since kind of ebbed. But it’s a bit of a playbook for collaboration between law enforcement.
Likewise, the state’s attorney general, Jahna Lindemuth was there at the press conference, also making a statement and taking questions. And it’s really state law enforcement and prosecutors that have seen a big drop in resources as a result of diminished budget appropriations by lawmakers the last few years. So the Troopers, the state’s department of law, they’re struggling to keep up with delivering justice just as most state, federal and local officials will say there’s more crime happening. And this is one of those multi-pronged strategies that seems like it’s meant to try to close gaps and get more efficient with handling violent crime.
TOWNSEND: The new initiatives that were announced – are those focused primarily on Anchorage, or cities, or spread state-wide?
HUGHES: This new strategy is very Anchorage-centric. At this point in time, there are no new dollars coming into the state from federal agencies or the Justice Department. So everything here is about leveraging existing capacity. And that capacity is overwhelmingly in Anchorage. So, I don’t want to downplay that these measures could make a difference. The ballistics expertise and addition of a federal duty officer seems designed to help with bigger investigations and connecting dots. But there’s not much here for rural Alaska. A prosecutor will be designated to help with “anti-violence efforts in rural Alaska,” specifically working on federal prosecution of “violent felons and domestic abusers” in possession of fire-arms. But that seems fairly narrow and targeted. Likewise, identifying what Schroder called “the worst of the worst” when it comes to violent offenders, and targeting prisoners that present a risk of re-offending upon re-entry – those seem like sensible ideas, but it’s hard to tell at this point in time how you quantify those policies or measure success.
TOWNSEND: Lastly, does anyone have any clear explanations for what’s driving the uptick in violent crime?
HUGHES: Less violent crimes committed by street-level users, but more so towards traffickers and people higher up the chain when it comes to importing and distributing opioids and heroin. Anchorage Police Chief Justin Doll was also at the press conference today, he’s called this very line of inquiry the department’s “million dollar question”. Members of the Anchorage Assembly have taken public testimony on this and heard people ascribe it to drugs, the state’s recession and a general erosion of morals. So lots of explanations. However, most people say they think it’s multifaceted, not any one particular driver. And this is happening outside of Alaska, as well, with most of the reliable longitudinal indicators showing a modest upward trend in serious crime.