By Kirsten Swann
Scott Lofthouse used to know where to find all the drug houses in Mountain View, but not anymore.
“I’m having to relearn everything,” he said, cruising down Thompson Avenue on a Friday night in early October.
It was just before midnight. Rain fell in a steady downpour, and the neighborhood was lit by street lamps and porch lights. Lofthouse, the Anchorage Police Department’s former gang intelligence officer, was back on a mid-shift patrol for the first time in nearly a decade.
He drove his APD SUV down crowed residential roads and pointed out old, familiar places as he went: There was the little wood-framed home that used to house a police substation, and an apartment complex that once saw frequent gang activity. After
Lofthouse first joined the force in 1993, he worked patrol in Mountain View, then joined the department’s federally funded community policing unit. The unit served about 70 search warrants during its first six months in the neighborhood, he said.
“We put a lot of drug houses out of business, arrested a lot of gang members,” Lofthouse said. “We cleaned up Mountain View pretty well, but we ended up pushing the criminal activity all over the rest of Anchorage.”
At the time, gang activity was at a boiling point. Lofthouse recalled one year in the mid-90s when roughly half of Anchorage’s 30-plus homicides were gang-related. He began learning more about those groups; gathering information and making connections through years spent as a robbery and assault detective and member of the FBI’s Safe Streets Task Force.
In 2008, he became APD’s gang intelligence officer, and monitored 74 validated gangs and about 450 known members. He relied heavily on the internet and maintained profiles on more than 30 social media sites: On Facebook, he was a 30-year-old Samoan gang member from California. Those profiles helped build a solid network of local knowledge.
Glen Klinkhart, a former APD homicide detective who retired several years ago, said that knowledge can be critical.
“It’s all about information,” Klinkhart said. “It’s about getting that information and finding out who can be involved.”
Oftentimes, solving cases quickly – or at all – comes down to the ability to unearth key specifics. Where was a suspect last seen? What kind of car are they currently driving? What other names do they go by? With whom do they associate? Sometimes, that information is only a few clicks away. And unlike bigger cities, where gangs have longstanding histories and traditions, police say Anchorage’s gangs are unpredictable. Online, they can keep track of shifting allegiances, potential motives or up-and-coming criminal groups.
Klinkhart said the department’s gang intelligence officer helped detectives connect the dots
“Most big cases aren’t solved by some huge, CSI, big-time smoking gun,” Klinkhart said.
Most of the time, it comes down to the details, and knowing where to find them.
Lofthouse recalled one gang that used a secret chat room to arrange their meetings and criminal activity. Once, he was able to help school resource officers at Bartlett High School find the people involved in an on-campus fight after one of the spectators – one of Lofthouse’s online connections – uploaded a video of the fight to his Facebook page.
Over the years, Lofthouse strengthened his network. He noticed an increase in prison gang activity and an increase in the percentage of violent crimes committed by gang members. But federal budget cuts chipped away at his resources. For the past year, Lofthouse said he worked without a fully functioning database, “so I collected reports, but all I did was stack them electronically into a folder.”
Then, in November 2013, he learned he was going back to patrol. It all came down to manpower, he said. There just wasn’t enough.
“They said, ‘Box everything up, put it into a storage closet because we’re going to archive everything. We’re not going to be doing gang intelligence anymore,’” Lofthouse said.
According to APD Chief Mark Mew, the department gave gang intelligence duties to the multi-agency Alaska Information and Analysis Center in a quest to become more efficient. Lofthouse said it makes information much harder to come by.
“It was kind of disappointing,” Lofthouse said.
By August, he was back in Mountain View; working a swing shift then moving to the overnight patrol beginning the first weekend in October. During the community policing days, there were 13 officers assigned to Mountain View. These days, Lofthouse said, he’s one of two, and their patrol extends to neighborhoods south of the highway.
They stay busy.
Friday night started with a robbery at a Muldoon Tesoro, then a car crash on Tudor Road and a DUI in Nunaka Valley. The driver, whose blood alcohol content later came in at .294, rammed his Rav 4 into a parked car before failing a field sobriety test in spectacular fashion.
Over the next several hours, there were more drunk drivers, several reported assaults and a call about a disturbance that turned out to be nothing more than an overly loud TV show. The elderly couple inside the Mountain View home looked surprised to hear Lofthouse and another officer knocking on their door early Saturday morning.
“Thank you for caring,” said the old woman in the wheelchair as the policemen said their goodbyes.
By 5 a.m., there was finally enough time to go check on a complaint that first came in around midnight. A homeless man was sleeping in the boiler room of an apartment complex off E. 4th Avenue, the caller said. When Lofthouse and a second officer arrived, the steel-framed basement door was locked tight and Asia’s “Heat of the Moment” blared from cell phone speakers on the other side. The man inside was drying his boots against the boiler, charging his phone and resting on some loose sheetrock spread across the room’s cold concrete floor. When police told him to leave, he packed up his things and walked out into the dark without a fight.
Calls like this are night and day from the some of the things Lofthouse used to see around the neighborhood. If you ask him, Anchorage isn’t as violent as it used to be. According to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports, violent crime rates have been on a downward trajectory since 1995.
Lofthouse said the gang element is still there – he sees signs of it all the time.
“There’ve been robberies that have had gang involvement,” he said, driving down 5th Avenue near the spot where a man was shot in the neck during an attempted robbery late last month. “There are burglaries. Thefts. Fights. I’m seeing more and more graffiti around town.”
It’s popping up in Mountain View and Fairview and Russian Jack and beyond. He spotted tags behind an apartment on San Roberto Drive during one of his first nights back on the street. Except now, he can’t follow up and track those things. When a reporter for a local television station asked him if a string of recent shootings were gang-related, he said he had to admit he didn’t know.
In some ways, it seems like things have come full circle. Lofthouse said Mountain View doesn’t have the kind of crime it did when he first went out on patrol, but now that crime seems to have shifted to other parts of town and he’s back chasing it on the streets like he used to.
“But you know what? I love patrol. I’m enjoying myself on patrol, too,” he said. “I just love law enforcement.”
Early Saturday morning, he ran into a longtime gang member while responding to a call in Fairview. Lofthouse had known him and his family for many years.
The man stood in his driveway smoking a cigarette, and recognized Lofthouse immediately. They made brief small talk and shook hands before parting ways.
“You can learn a lot from that guy,” said the man in the driveway as the officer walked away.