A New York Times article Friday points out that murder rates in a quarter of the country’s largest cities are dramatically up. Among them is Anchorage.
The story only draws on data through 2015, and so doesn’t include the 25 homicides Alaska’s largest city has seen this year. Though city officials have been all over town trying to explain what’s happening and what they’re doing about it, many people simply do not feel safe. Not even at home.
Under a wooden pavilion in Valley of the Moon park Thursday evening, a crowd of nearly 150 residents formed a huge circle around Anchorage’s mayor and police chief, asking questions and sharing concerns.
At times, things felt like they were about to devolve into chaos, with people shouting across the ring.
Their worries and suggestions to officials ran the gamut, from highly technical recommendations for how to aggregate community-level reports of criminality, to broad calls for armed citizen patrols. One man even suggested the city should look at the Phillipines for guidance, where extra judicial killings are spiking. The remark was met with a chorus of boos.
But there was plenty of civility, too, with laughs and applause as Mayor Ethan Berkowitz and Police Chief Chris Tolley fielded questions and, explained how the city is addressing the issue. It lasted an hour-and-a-half.
This is the same park where less than two weeks ago Bryant “Brie” DeHusson and Kevin Turner were murdered, which many people in this affluent area near downtown say was a breaking point for them.
Eva Gardner lives nearby, and helped coordinate a letter signed by more than 90 people which was sent to the mayor asking for solutions to a perceived rise in crime and violence. She spoke about the discrepancy between assurances of safety from officials, and a feeling of worsening violent crime.
“That kind of jars when you look back last week at a warning APD put out about staying off the trails after dark,” Gardner said during a short interview.
Gardner was referring to a statement issued by the police department just after the Valley of the Moon killings that advised residents not to travel alone at night through parks, trails, or quiet streets. But many residents say quick access to parks and trails is exactly why they live there.
Larry Gordaoff’s lived in Anchorage for 40 years and raised his family in this neighborhood. He says there’s always been crime in Anchorage — the new part is that now it’s in Valley of the Moon.
“Years ago, we cleaned up Spenard,” Gordaoff rattled off, “well they moved to Mountain View. So then they get over, we’re gonna clean up Mt. View. They moved to Fairview. Then they moved down to the Town Square. And when they kicked them out of there here they are. So where do they go next?”
This is a vision of public safety as an unresolved game of whack-a-mole. City and police officials have been at pains in the last few weeks to plead their case to the public that they’re not pushing problems to other parts of town. They’ve stressed long-term solutions city hall is pushing: More housing for vulnerable residents, a homeless coordinator, and an aggressive effort to rebuild the police department’s staffing.
But for Rosalyn Thompson, that just isn’t a comfort. She was friends with DeHusson, and moved back to Alaska after hearing news of the tragedy.
“My original concern was over the lights, because I lived in Valley of the Moon for three years before moving out of state this summer, and often times the lights won’t be on when I’m out walking, and I wondered ‘ok, well were the street lights on the night that Brie was murdered?'”
Several residents asked about the possibility of a serial killer. Chief Tolley has been adamant he won’t speculate on that question or on any of the unresolved cases. For many people, that’s an inadequate response. But Thompson was less troubled by that than how much of the evening’s conversation hovered around blaming homeless people.
“I mean it was a friend of mine that was murdered, and for no reason, as far as I know. It is concerning, and I feel like my hyper-vigilance is through the roof, especially since the mayor and police chief are just giving us fluffy political answers. I mean, I think people have a right to be concerned but I wish they weren’t demonizing the homeless while they were at it.”
After the forum wrapped up, the mayor and police chief stuck around to talk one-on-one with lingering residents, even as staffers tried ushering them to their next engagements.