Short-Staffed APD Goes High Tech To Combat Spiking Crime Rates

Graphic courtesy of the UAA Justice Center.
Graphic courtesy of the UAA Justice Center.

The Anchorage Police Department will soon be using new mapping software to track crime around the city in nearly real-time.

The announcement comes in the wake of an annual FBI report that says serious crime was up last year in Anchorage in nearly every category.

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In a few weeks, Anchorage police officers will flip open their dashboard laptops and use a Wi-Fi connection to access a map showing where crimes took place around the city during the past 24 hours.

Anchorage Police Chief Mark Mew press conference April 8, 2013.
Anchorage Police Chief Mark Mew press conference April 8, 2013.

APD Chief Mark Mew says he hopes the new crime mapping system will bring the APD up to date technologically and help the department to be more agile at a time when crime is up and the department is short-staffed.

“It’s going to give us real time tactical, within hours old or day-old data hotspots, geographic places and times,” Mew said. “We can diagnose this data; we can make assignments; we can make patrol assignments, detective assignments and keep on with the crime patterns as they actually develop.”

The department’s current mapping system doesn’t provide real-time data to officers in their cars. Chief Mew says the strategic crime analysis provided by the FBI’s annual report helps the APD make long-term decisions, but the new mapping system will help first responders make better tactical decisions.

Mew says he’s been looking for a better way to track crime around the city, especially since the FBI report was released highlighting a spike in serious crimes in Anchorage in 2012. Violent crimes like murder, rape, robbery and assault were all up. The only categories that went down were vehicle theft and arson.

Chief Mew is quick to note that the overall trend is still down.

“We are up across the boards compared to last year,” he said. “Last year was a near historic low for us.”

“If you compare the numbers against the recent past over the last eight or nine years, we are still low in most of these categories.”

According to an analysis by researchers at the University of Alaska Justice Center, rape and theft are not only up over last year’s numbers but higher than the 10 year average.

Crime is increasing at a time when the number of officers is down. Dozens of officers are set to retire in January due to incentives put in place several years ago.

“If you retired by a certain date, you would get a lump sum that would make up for the fact that you missed all your raises, and that date is January 4th of 2014,” Mew said. “We normally have about 20 people leave a year.”

“We’ve already surpassed that and I expect we’ll probably have 40 go this year.”

Graphic courtesy of the UAA Justice Center.

The department is simultaneously having recruiting problems. Mew says they’re trying to increase recruiting by modernizing the test recruits take. In the meantime, he hopes the new crime mapping system will help the department cope.

Mayor Dan Sullivan, who has filed to run for lieutenant governor in 2014, has touted the decline in crime under his watch. He contends the spike is an anomaly.

“Over the last four years if you look at the average, we’ve got good statistics,” Sullivan said. “We have one year with an uptick, which 2012 appears to be, but if you look at the last four years compared to the previous four years’ you know average it’s a good story.”

“If over the next couple of years those statistics continue to go the wrong way, then you’ve got a trend.”

That’s something Derek Hsieh, a Sergeant with the APD and a member of the police union, is worried about.

Hsieh is leading a battle to repeal a new union-busting law supported by the Sullivan administration. He says that putting union benefits on the chopping block could be hurting recruiting numbers.

He also notes that the Anchorage Police Department does not offer a pension plan like most cities of its size.

Hseih is cautious to draw conclusions from just one year of data, but he says the increase in crime combined with the anticipated decrease in officers is very concerning.

“The number of police officers in Anchorage is dropping and it’s dropping at a rapid rate,” Hseih said. “We had just a number of years ago a high of over 400 officers and the Chief of police is now reporting that by next year we’ll have fewer than 335.”

“Simultaneously we’re having an increase in serious and violent crime in our community, and those two things together generally lead to some serious trouble.”

Hseih says he thinks the new mapping software is a step in the right direction, but he’s certain it will not make up for such a large reduction in staff.

APD spokesperson Jennifer Castro says the department plans to have the new mapping system in place by mid-November. It will also be available for the public to track crime in their neighborhoods.

Castro says APD will be the first law enforcement agency in Alaska to use the new system.

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Daysha Eaton is a contributor with the Alaska Public Radio Network. Daysha Eaton holds a B.A. from Evergreen State College, and a M.A. from the University of Southern California. Daysha got her start in radio at Seattle public radio stations, KPLU and KUOW. Before coming to KBBI, she was the News Director at KYUK in Bethel. She has also worked as the Southcentral Reporter for KSKA in Anchorage. Daysha's work has appeared on NPR's "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered", PRI's "The World" and "National Native News". She's happy to take assignments, and to get news tips, which are best sent via email. Daysha became a journalist because she believes in the power of storytelling. Stories connect us and they help us make sense of our world. They shed light on injustice and they comfort us in troubled times. She got into public broadcasting because it seems to fulfill the intention of the 4th Estate and to most effectively apply the freedom of the press granted to us through the Constitution. She feels that public radio has a special way of moving people emotionally through sound, taking them to remote places, introducing them to people they would not otherwise meet and compelling them to think about issues they might ordinarily overlook.