In Anchorage, the year began with a violent bang: an 18-year-old was fatally shot in a drug store parking lot, a young couple was killed in their apartment and then, two days later, a 20-year-old was gunned down in another parking lot in another part of town.
It cast a pall over the city and put a renewed spotlight on crime. Public safety became a key campaign issue in the spring mayoral race. Community groups sought to address the problems with block parties, rallies and public forums. The slogan “Stop the Violence” appeared in radio ads and televised interviews; on t-shirts and posters. But the violence continued.
By March, 16 people had been killed—the highest number in Anchorage since 2007, according to the FBI. And the number kept growing. Many of the victims were young, like the 18-year-old shot to death in a crowded club, and the 19-year-old gunned down just a few days after attending a Stop the Violence event at the Northway Mall in early August. Families mourned, and the community kept searching for a solution. What could make Anchorage a safer place?
For more than 20 years, scholars and law enforcement officers and neighborhood leaders alike have touted the power of community policing. Yet for more than 20 years, it’s been practiced only occasionally in various pockets of the city.
According to the Department of Justice, community policing is a philosophy based on partnerships and proactive problem solving. It involves assigning officers to specific neighborhoods to build trust and street-level relationships. And that takes time.
“We have to build those relationships, and the only way we can do that is by making those contacts and having that interaction and showing them that we care about them and we care about this community,” said Sgt. Josh Nolder, the new head of Anchorage Police Department’s Community Action Policing (CAP) team.
Despite its name, the CAP team currently does very little in the way of traditional community policing. With around 365 sworn officers on the force, responding to calls for service takes up a majority of each workday, and CAP team members are frequently tapped to assist with other work, Nolder said.
A 2010 report by the Police Executive Research Forum examined ways to adopt an “an enhanced community policing approach” and concluded APD would need approximately 456 sworn staffers to achieve 40 percent unobligated time—the amount recommended for a robust community policing practice. The department is currently about 100 officers shy of that goal.
Given the manpower, Nolder said, officers would have time to really get to know residents and local business owners, “so that they are more willing to tell us when something’s not right in their neighborhood as opposed to saying, ‘I don’t want to talk to the police.’”
That was part of the goal of a three-year, $1.5 million Department of Justice grant awarded 20 years ago for community policing work in Mountain View. The money paid for 15 additional officers to patrol the neighborhood by foot and bike, part of a “shift to prevention strategies, with emphasis on public interaction and officer problem solving at the street level,” according to a funding proposal for the project.
Between October 1994 and September 1996, the number of calls involving violent crime in Mountain View declined by 16 percent, according to APD and the University of Alaska Anchorage Justice Center. The number of calls involving weapons decreased by 34 percent. While the time period was too short to make any concrete conclusions, researchers found, the program seemed to produce positive results.
That was right about the time John Kito came to work in the neighborhood; first at Mountain View Elementary School and eventually as the principal at Tyson Elementary School, where he still is to this day. He’s a strong believer in community policing. Back in the ‘90s, he started his own kind of neighborhood outreach; walking the streets with teachers at the end of every summer, knocking on doors, shaking hands with parents and inviting families to an ice cream social down at the school.
“It makes a difference because you’re walking into their territory,” said Kito, who now teaches the children of some of his former students. “It’s getting a presence out, I think, that’s very, very positive.”
The same goes for law enforcement officers, he says. When proactive community policing takes place in the neighborhood, things seem to calm down. When the police department returns to its traditional, reactive model, crime seems to go up. Lately, the elementary school principal has been especially concerned by a seemingly high rate of violence in the area.
“It’s generally not the kids—it’s the people that come into the community,” he said. “The frightening thing about this whole thing is it’s not decreased to a level where we all feel comfortable.”
When problems outside the school grounds impact his students’ homes or families, the ripples can reach back to the classroom. A deeper police presence in the neighborhood could trigger small public safety improvements with profound effects, he said.
The issue is money.
Last month, city departments—including APD—were advised of a potential 2016 budget shortfall and upcoming cuts. With the department still sitting far short of staffing levels necessary for full-scale community policing citywide, prospects for implementing the practice any time in the near future look grim. But some officers still try.
“We’re a department, I think, that really tries to do the best with what we’ve got,” said Sgt. Nolder, standing in the sun at Mountain View’s National Night Out block party one hot August evening.
Several APD officers were on hand to greet neighbors, hand out stickers and show off the department’s armored vehicle to kids. The weekend before, they’d pulled patrol assets to make an appearance at the We Are Anchorage Megga Stop the Violence Block Party, according to Lt. Richard Henning. Other officers are finding different ways to strengthen ties with community.
For Ofc. Christina Roberts, it’s a back-to-school clothing drive co-sponsored by the APD Employees Association and various businesses and non-profits. Roberts is a 10-year veteran of the force with roots in the neighborhood. She grew up in Mountain View and Fairview. She still has family in the area, and her children go to school on the northeast side of town.
At the encouragement of a new lieutenant a few weeks ago, she found herself talking to her old classmate Ma’o Tosi in the management office of the Northway Mall. She thought of all the needs at her children’s schools, she had a “crazy idea” and the next thing she knew she was searching for business donors for a K-12 clothing distribution the afternoon of August 15. The response was tremendous.
“We’ve been getting an outpouring of support from the community,” she said.
Roberts said the clothing drive at the Northway Mall is a way to build a positive connection with the city the police department serves. Those connections are important: As a native of the neighborhood she patrols, she said her ties to the area have helped her police work more than once.
“I think a strong relationship with the community you’re serving is crucial,” she said. “I view the world a little differently, because this is where I grew up. I understand the need for positive role models, the need for positive police interactions.”
Those little things foster trust, she said. With no trust, there’s no communication, and a lot revolves around communication—between police, neighbors, businesses and everyone else in the community.
At the Mountain View Boys & Girls Club, community trust plays a large part in protecting the clubhouse in the heart of the neighborhood. There may be trouble on the streets outside, but inside, kids are safe. Clubhouse manager Dave Barney says part of it has to do with the saying he learned when he first came to the club more than six years ago: “Respect the rec.” It means your issues stay outside; the community space is somewhat sacred. People follow the rule because there’s a mutual understanding and they know Barney. He works to keep it that way. When it comes to building safe communities, he says, “Don’t get complacent.”
“You’ve got to keep working on it,” he said.
In January 2015, the United States Conference of Mayors released a report with recommendations for implementing a community policing philosophy in cities around the country.
To build trust, the report states, “Police officers need to interact on a daily basis with the community to develop credibility and establish an ongoing dialogue with residents, including those with whom they may disagree, to help keep incidents from becoming crises. Community policing must be much more than one officer forming a relationship; it involves making inroads in the most challenged communities.”
While budget restrictions and staff shortages make full-fledged community policing a challenge in Anchorage, strengthening the long-term relationship between neighborhoods and law enforcement could help slow the violence. Maybe, over time, it could stop it.
“That’s the only way we’re going to be able to take our neighborhoods back,” Ofc. Roberts said.