An alarming spate of killings on woodsy streets where moose often roam has placed the Police Department at the center of Tuesday's mayoral election in Alaska's largest city, with vows from both candidates to strengthen a force that has been cut back in hard economic times.
Police say nine people were killed in Anchorage, population 300,000, in the first three months of the year — including six gunned down in six weeks. By comparison, three were killed over the same period in 2014.
"This is what happens when you reduce a visible police presence. You're going to have more crime, more dangerous streets," said Ethan Berkowitz, one of two candidates on the May 5 ballot. A union-backed former state legislator, Berkowitz ranks among this red state's best-known Democrats.
His opponent, suburban City Council member Amy Demboski, counts the Anchorage Tea Party among her supporters and recently confronted a man vandalizing her campaign signs with a .380 handgun at her waist.
The mayoral election comes at a time of major changes across Alaska. The Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race's starting point was relocated hundreds of miles north following a comparatively warm, snow-starved winter. In November, voters legalized marijuana, presenting additional challenges to law enforcement officials who must navigate a new set of laws. Crashing oil prices in this oil-dependent state have led to the possibility of multibillion-dollar deficits. Newly elected Gov. Bill Walker's budget plan includes slashing an Alaska State Trooper post in Anchorage, further taxing the city police.
At times the mayoral campaign has been bruising. An Anchorage pastor accused Berkowitz, who supports same-sex marriage, of endorsing incest. Then Demboski refused to denounce the pastor's comment in a controversial radio interview. Left-leaning bloggers have publicized embarrassing details in Demboski's divorce records.
Despite the headline-grabbing personal attacks, both candidates agree that hiring more police officers is a top priority in a city that has long held a reputation for urban violence in sparsely populated Alaska.
Whoever takes the helm of the city, the Police Department is poised to be the big winner based on campaign promises. Both candidates say they will revive or rebuild special detective teams that were disbanded or reduced as the department shrank from 380 badge-carrying officers in 2010 to 321 officers in mid-2014, a nine-year low. The numbers have rebounded slightly, but fall below union recommendations.
The police reductions combined with a growing tent city of homeless people in downtown Anchorage have led to a sense of lawlessness, Berkowitz said on a recent Saturday morning, as detectives across town investigated yet another shooting. "Folks who might be inclined to do bad things have a sense of impunity," he said.
The first killing, on Jan. 25, involved a marijuana deal gone bad. A 14-year-old has been accused of shooting Charles Steinhilpert, 18, in the chest in a Walgreens parking lot.
Two days later and two miles away, an Anchorage couple were shot and killed in their apartment — an unsolved case. That same week, a 19-year-old apparently involved in the Walgreens marijuana shooting was accused of killing a suspected drug dealer in another parking lot confrontation. There would be five more killings by March 20, most of them drug-related shootings.
As the body count grew, Anchorage Police Chief Mark Mew announced police would be "shaking down everything that moves on the street" in an attempt to dampen the violence.
Demboski and Berkowitz both said the dismantling of a theft detective unit and the reduction of special units that waged parking lot stings on drug dealers had contributed to the spate of killings.
Drug arrests from 2010 to 2014 dropped by half after detectives were reassigned to street patrol, said Det. Jeff Bell, a vice president of the city police union.
Outgoing Mayor Dan Sullivan argues that the increase in killings is an anomaly. Anchorage homicide rates declined over the last decade, with a near-20-year low of 13 killings in 2014, Sullivan told state lawmakers at a special committee hearing called in response to the killings.
"There are fewer crimes reported today in Anchorage, Alaska, than 30 years ago," Sullivan told the Legislature, adding that a fresh police academy class finished in March, with another planned for May. "Overall we are a safe community."
Berkowitz has called for a force of at least 400 officers, which would represent a 20% increase and approach the numbers necessary to allow police to conduct "proactive community policing and problem solving" rather than rush from crisis to crisis, according to a 2010 study on city police staffing.
Demboski said in an interview that she too would support 400 or more officers if a fresh review of police demands found it necessary.
"Morale is low in the department," said the candidate, who has threatened to replace the police chief if elected. "Officers are very frustrated when they have to run from call to call to call and they have absolutely zero time to stop and write their report."