Frustration over ongoing public safety problems dominated the discussion at Monday’s Mountain View Community Council meeting.
Time and time again, the issue took over the conversation. Complaints about large homeless camps in Davis Park and slow (or nonexistent) response times culminated in unanimous approval for a resolution supporting the Anchorage Police Department’s presence in Mountain View.
The resolution asks for increased cooperation on community safety initiatives. It requests an officer attend the monthly council meeting to address residents’ concerns.
But the vote didn’t come until after a heated discussion that pushed the meeting well beyond its normal length and tapped into a well of simmering tensions.
“Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, expecting a different result,” said Dan Maher, a longtime local. “We call the police over and over again, and we keep thinking, ‘Maybe one time they’ll actually show up and do their job.'”
Maher was fed up Monday night. He has been for a long time.
While at least a half dozen Mountain View residents — Maher included — said they’d called the Anchorage Police Department numerous times to report large, permanent homeless campsites in the woods at Davis Park, the park is still littered with tents and trash.
It’s been that way for months
Several weeks ago, Maher and Rep. Garen Tarr met with Lt. Garry Gilliam to discuss the problem. Gilliam heads the police department’s Community Action Policing Team, and according to Tarr and Maher, said he’d attend the June council meeting to hear neighborhood concerns.
He never showed up.
Monday, Tarr told council attendees emotions had run high during the meeting with Gilliam. She said the department, working towards a new community policing model, seemed to believe it was unwelcome in Mountain View. Changing that perception could take time, but Tarr said she was hopeful things were slowly turning around.
“I feel like we’re making a lot of progress,” she said.
Maher didn’t feel the same about the meeting with Tarr and the police lieutenant.
“She obviously came out of it more positive than I did,” Maher said.
Sitting in the back row of chairs in the council meeting room Monday night, Maher’s voice rose and he spoke for more than 10 minutes about his frustrations with the police department. Repeated calls did nothing to solve the blatant camping in the neighborhood park, he said. When sitting face-to-face with Gilliam, Maher said the lieutenant would not take a report about the problem.
“If you’re talking to the top dog, he could have said, ‘Let me make a note of that and see that we put it on the agenda,'” Maher said at Monday’s council meeting. “He refused.”
Standing at the front of the room, Tarr nodded.
Maher continued. He said he had told the lieutenant that when he called to report the problem in the past, nothing happened.
“He got real defensive and he said, ‘How do you know nothing happened?'” Maher told council members. “I said, ‘Because we didn’t see anything happen.’ ‘Well maybe it was an undercover (who) came by,’ and I wanted to say, ‘Well, maybe they were invisible, too.'”
Gilliam could not be reached for comment Tuesday.
Whether or not there was any follow-up to Maher’s calls, the camps remain. Little has changed.
A large cluster of tents near the entrance to Mountain View Lions Park has been replaced by a large cluster of tents in the woods about a hundred yards away. Old folding chairs and bags of trash cover the ground where the first camp once stood, and new piles of trash are taking root in the foliage surrounding the new tent site.
More than a month ago, neighborhood cleanup volunteers had gone through the park and cleared away the trash. Tarr said they had reported the camps in the woods, but according to municipal ordinance, dismantling permanent camps requires police post notices at the site and give occupants two weeks to move.
In May, television cameras followed CAP Team members as they made their way through Anchorage camps and posted notices to evict. More than a month later, at least in Davis Park, the camps remain. Tarr said the campers may have removed the eviction notices, or skirted police by moving slightly further back into the woods.
“It’s kind of one of those situations where they come up with a policy, the campers figure out a way around it,” she said. “They change the policy, the campers find a way around that.”
But Maher ties the ongoing issue back to the police department.
“A concerted effort by the police department will end it, but they’re not making it a priority in any way, shape or form,” he said.
Other Mountain View residents aired similar feelings over the course of the hours-long council meeting Monday.
Cedar Cussins asked council members and Assemblyman Patrick Flynn why nothing was done about the illegal camps set up within sight of the Anchorage Jail on 4th Avenue. Neighborhood patrolman Bob Lincoln said he waited on hold for about 20 minutes before he was able to reach a police dispatcher to report rounds of gunfire Sunday night.
Diane Mead, the council’s vice president, said police didn’t always seem to record calls from neighborhood residents. She encouraged council meeting attendees to start filing reports online, when possible.
“I don’t know if they read it, but at least there’s a record,” she said.
Many people asked the same question Monday night: Why?
Why — after repeated, prolonged complaints — are there still illegal camps in Davis Park? Why does it take 20 minutes to reach a dispatcher when shots are fired outside your home? Why was there no police officer at Monday’s meeting?
Flynn and Tarr said it’s a matter of resources. The police department faces a shrinking force impacted by retirement, attrition and too few recruits to fill the void. A representative for the Anchorage Police Department said dispatchers must prioritize calls, and not every call requires an immediate response.
Maher said it’s difficult to keep making calls when nothing seems to change.
“The thing is, we get no response and the community is so fed up,” he said.
While there were no answers to those problems at Monday’s council meeting, there were plenty of ideas.
Tarr suggested organizing a second neighborhood cleanup this summer to clear low-hanging branches from Davis Park and make it more difficult to hide tents among the trees. About a half dozen residents signed up for a newly formed public safety committee to come up with neighborhood solutions to persistent crime.
And, with a 14-0 vote, the council passed a resolution formally inviting the Anchorage Police Department into Mountain View.
“We need to make it impossible for them to say we’re not doing our part,” Tarr said.