As activists across Alaska press for police reform following the death of George Floyd, law enforcement agencies in Alaska say that they’re listening.
While demonstrations continue, we thought it would be helpful to try to provide Alaska-specific answers to some of the big questions that have circulated in the public discussions since Floyd’s death, and in the years leading up to it.
What does the data show about police shootings and use of force in Alaska, and how often it’s used on black and Alaska Native people? What policies govern use of force by the police? What do we know about how officers are disciplined for violating those policies? And does the ethnic makeup of Alaska law enforcement agencies mirror the communities they police?
We posed those questions to two of Alaska’s largest police forces — the Anchorage Police Department and the Alaska State Troopers — and also sought information from other sources. Some of the answers proved elusive, but here’s what we learned.
What data exists about use of force and shootings involving Alaska police?
There’s no authoritative state or federal government database that publicly tracks police shootings or use of force in Alaska, though at a national level, departments can voluntarily disclose fatal shootings to the FBI.
APD and the troopers say they’re submitting data to a new FBI pilot program that tracks fatal and non-fatal shootings, plus any other use of force that causes death or “serious bodily injury.” That program is voluntary, and the FBI says that only about 40% of departments are participating nationwide.
But the FBI isn’t releasing any data until this summer. And last week, APD and the troopers declined to release the information they’ve already submitted, saying such a step would require a formal public records request.
In response to questions, APD did provide a list of all officer-involved shootings since 2010. Five of the 28 involved an Alaska Native or American Indian, which means that Natives were disproportionately involved in shootings compared to their population in Anchorage — about 18% of shootings, compared to 13% of the population. The numbers are also disproportionate for black people, who were involved in 18% of shootings but represent 9% of Anchorage’s population.
The troopers would not release data on officer-involved shootings, saying it had to be obtained through a formal records request.
But statewide, there have been 39 fatal shootings since 2015 involving all Alaska law-enforcement agencies, according to a Washington Post database that tracks those incidents. Nine of the people killed, or 23%, were described as Alaska Native or American Indian — a higher proportion than the statewide Native population of 20%. Three of the people killed, or 8%, were black, compared to 5% of the statewide population.
A 2013 study of two decades of Anchorage police shooting data also found that black people are overrepresented, along with Pacific Islanders.
Data on police shootings, however, represent a “little, tiny slice” of the “most extreme outcome” of law enforcement’s use of force in Alaska, since they exclude the far more numerous incidents that didn’t result in officers firing their weapons, said Brad Myrstol, director of the University of Alaska Anchorage Justice Center.
Myrstol cautioned against drawing many conclusions from the shooting data. But he also said that they can serve as a foundation for discussion.
“Grounding the conversation in data puts it in a place where people can talk about facts, rather than suppositions or hunches,” he said. “And I think that’s always the best place to start a meaningful conversation — particularly around what can be done to remedy disparity, if it exists.”
What do we know about APD’s and troopers’ use-of-force policies?
Neither the troopers nor APD have publicly released their full policy manuals for officers, though there’s an old version of the Anchorage police’s that’s archived online. APD says it’s trying to finish updating the manual and plans to release a new version soon.
Anchorage police also last week released their 13-page “response to resistance policy” that’s contained within the much lengthier manual. A troopers spokeswoman, Megan Peters, said her agency’s policies would have to be obtained through a public records request, though she provided basic information about them in response to questions.
Where do the agencies’ policies stand? One national activist group, 8 Can’t Wait, has been pushing police to adopt eight different changes to the ways they use and track force, and at a community briefing last week, APD Chief Justin Doll described how his department’s policies align with each proposal. Here’s how APD’s and the troopers’ policies measure up.
- Ban chokeholds and strangleholds.
APD has not completely banned chokeholds; it says they’re allowed only in extreme circumstances, when officers would be allowed to use “deadly force.” Troopers say their policy is similar: Officers are taught a neck hold that can only be used in situations where deadly force is justified, Peters said.
- Require de-escalation, where possible, by communicating with subjects, maintaining distance and otherwise eliminating the need to use force.
APD says that de-escalation — which means working to reduce a conflict’s intensity — is required and an essential component of officers’ jobs and training. De-escalation requirements are not specifically stated in the department’s 13-page “response to resistance policy,” though the term is defined in that section.
Troopers say their academy for new recruits includes a number of lessons on de-escalation, which are reinforced through field training.
- Require a verbal warning from officers before using deadly force.
APD policy requires officers, when “tactically feasible,” to issue verbal commands and warnings before using force. Warnings are not required in circumstances when an officer has to make a “split-second decision,” or if the officer thinks that issuing the warning would put them or others in jeopardy.
Peters, the troopers spokeswoman, said warnings before shooting are required “when feasible.”
- Require officers to exhaust all other alternatives before using deadly force.
At last week’s community briefing, APD Chief Justin Doll said that there are some “obvious concerns” with this proposal, given the possibility for police to encounter someone who’s actively shooting at people, among other situations.
“I think that most people can understand that if there is a person who is actively attempting to kill other people, we expect our law enforcement to engage and to stop that immediately,” he said. “To the extent that it’s possible, we expect our officers to use whatever techniques and tools that they have available, that they’ve been given and trained on, to try to do things other than resorting to deadly force.”
Peters, the troopers’ spokeswoman, said that “each incident has its own merits.”
“While we aim to de-escalate situations and have a desire for all parties involved to end an encounter alive and uninjured, we can’t require a checklist before deadly force can be utilized,” she said.
- Require officers to intervene and stop excessive force used by other officers, and report these incidents immediately.
APD policy requires officers to submit a report whenever they use force against a suspect beyond “compliant handcuffing and escorting.” And officers who witness uses of force in violation of APD policy are required to tell a supervisor and submit “required supplemental reports.”
Peters, the troopers spokeswoman, said she wasn’t able to answer questions about the agency’s internal reporting of its use of force.
- Ban officers from shooting at moving vehicles in all cases.
APD policy only allows officers to shoot at a moving vehicle when something beyond the threat posed by the vehicle itself justifies the use of deadly force — though there is an exception for “extenuating circumstances.” Doll, the chief, said officers are also barred from putting themselves in a position where firing at a moving vehicle would become necessary, and APD’s policy adds that officers will be “rigorously scrutinized” when such shootings take place.
Peters didn’t have information on the Troopers’ specific policies around firing at moving vehicles, and she added that “each situation has its own merits.”
- Establish a “force continuum” that restricts severe force to extreme situations, and creates clear policy restrictions on the use of each police weapon and tactic.
APD’s leadership doesn’t support this proposal, saying it can be counterproductive by encouraging officers to ratchet up conflicts, rather than de-escalate them.
Peters said troopers judge each incident on its own merits.
- Require officers to report each time they use any type of force or threaten to use force against civilians, including pointing a gun at someone.
APD policy requires officers to report all uses of force beyond “compliant handcuffing and escorting,” which includes pointing a gun at a person. Doll, the chief, also said last week that his agency supports a new program requiring officers to use body cameras that would document their interactions with suspects.
Peters, the troopers spokeswoman, said there’s supposed to be a record of any interaction that results in a trooper using force at a level “above putting somebody in handcuffs,” though she did not provide details or the written language of the department’s policy.
What do we know about the racial makeup of the Anchorage police and state Trooper forces?
Some experts say that police agencies are more effective when their officers look like the community they serve.
Neither APD or the Troopers released demographic breakdowns of their officers last week. APD said it’s working on a response, while Peters, the troopers spokeswoman, said she does not believe statistics are tracked, adding that it would require a public records request to find out.
APD has disclosed this data in the past, however. In 2015, 83% of APD’s sworn and unsworn officers were white, compared to about 67% of the city’s population, according to the Anchorage Daily News.
At the community briefing, Doll, the chief, said those numbers still “are not where they should be.” He asked for help in recruiting people from more segments of the city to help make the force more representative.
Does the public have the right to know when Anchorage police officers or state troopers are punished for breaking use-of-force policies?
Advocates say it’s important to have open access to police disciplinary records that could call an officer’s integrity or professionalism into question.
But generally speaking, these records are kept secret for state troopers and Anchorage police.
At the state level, this remained the subject of legal debate until April, when the Alaska Supreme Court released a decision in a lawsuit filed against the troopers by Kaleb Lee Basey, a man who was once stationed at Fort Wainwright in Fairbanks before being convicted of distribution and transportation of child pornography.
Basey, who represented himself without the help of an attorney, had filed a public records request seeking the disciplinary records of two troopers involved in his case. The state rejected the request, and Basey took his case all the way to the Alaska Supreme Court. In April, the Supreme Court released a unanimous decision agreeing with the troopers, saying that disciplinary records are considered part of state employees’ confidential personnel files under a state law called the State Personnel Act.
The Supreme Court did, however, leave open a possibility that the Legislature could change the law and make those disciplinary records public. The state had argued in Basey’s case that in addition to the personnel act, the Alaska Constitution’s privacy clause also barred the release of Troopers’ disciplinary records. But the Supreme Court did not agree, saying it didn’t have to address the question because its decision was already guided by the State Personnel Act.
That means that state legislators could vote to allow access to troopers’ disciplinary records by changing the law — though such a move could still be subject to a legal challenge on the same constitutional grounds that the Supreme Court left unresolved.
Anchorage police disciplinary records are governed by municipal code that exempts any personnel files from a disclosure that would “constitute an unwarranted invasion of privacy.” The Anchorage Assembly has the power to change the code, though Mayor Ethan Berkowitz’s administration asserts that the Constitution’s privacy still limits the release of police disciplinary records. While the Supreme Court explicitly declined to agree with that position in the Basey case just two months ago, Doll, the Anchorage police chief, said at last week’s briefing that the Constitution’s privacy clause bars his agency from releasing disciplinary records. And a city attorney expanded on that argument in an email Friday.
“It is not just the privacy rights of APD officers that are at issue in the disclosure of disciplinary files. These investigations contain personal and oftentimes very intimate details about victims, witnesses and suspects, as one might expect in investigations of police activity. All of these individuals also have an expectation of privacy that their personal information will not be disclosed,” wrote Assistant Municipal Attorney Blair Christensen. “The courts have acknowledged that the balancing of an individual’s right to privacy against disclosure must be done on an individual basis that takes into account the specific facts of each case.”
Isn’t there an oversight board that looks into police misconduct in Alaska?
Yes. When APD, the troopers or any other Alaska law enforcement agency fires an officer, forces them to resign or disciplines them for “serious misconduct,” they’re required to report to the Alaska Police Standards Council — a 13-member commission appointed by the governor.
After receiving such a report, the council does its own investigation. If the results lead council members to believe that the officer’s state-issued police certificate should be revoked, then they send the officer a letter giving them two options.
One option is for the officer to return their certificate voluntarily. If that happens, their name is still entered into a national index that shows their certificate has been revoked, which should keep them from getting another job as a police officer elsewhere, said Bob Griffiths, the council’s executive director. But if the officer chooses that option, the allegations against them remain a secret — the only documentation released publicly is a two-page “consent agreement” that waives their right to a hearing and acknowledges the loss of the certificate, without admitting guilt. One caveat is that there are other ways for allegations against those officers to become public — namely, if the alleged misconduct they’re involved with leads to criminal charges against them.
The other option is for an officer to fight the council’s move to revoke their certificate. If that happens, the council prepares an accusatory document that becomes available to the public, and the case is subsequently argued at a public hearing before an administrative law judge. Afterward, the judge issues a formal recommendation to the council, which then can take final action on the officer’s certificate. The council’s decisions can be appealed in state court.
Have questions about Alaska police policies and use of force? Email reporter Nat Herz at firstname.lastname@example.org