Officer Brian Fuchs arrests a woman on an outstanding warrant at a park in Mountain View during his patrol shift. (Photo: Zachariah Hughes – Alaska Public Media, Anchorage)

Police in Anchorage are trying something new: having officers patrol beats built around community boundaries, rather than covering the entire city. It’s an attempt to deliver “community policing,” a general set of tactics the mayor’s administration has emphasized as it continues increasing the size of the police force.

On a recent weekday morning,
Officer Brian Fuchs was patrolling his beat in the Mountain View neighborhood.
He got out at a popular park and began checking on people sleeping in their
vehicles to make sure they weren’t in distress.

Then, he wandered down a footpath
into the woods, where there were half-a-dozen tents and piles of rubbish.
Hidden under branches and a tent cover was a small Mazda spray-painted black.
In the backseat, two people were asleep.

“Hey, open the door,” Fuchs
said, knocking on the window and growing increasingly alarmed.

“Is she alive?” he asked a
bleary-eyed young man. Fuchs couldn’t see her breathing, and when the boyfriend
tried shaking her she hardly stirred.

“Ma’am, are you ok?” Fuchs asked,
reaching into the car.

The 19-year-old woman gradually
began to come around. She exited the car but had trouble standing. Fuchs asked
the 20-year-old boyfriend if they’d been using drugs. He said no, but the
backseat was littered with used syringes. Worried the woman might have
overdosed, Fuchs called for an ambulance to check her out. There were no drugs
on hand, and the car’s ownership status was unclear. Short of having medics
evaluate the young woman, there was not much for police to do.

“These kids are out here, addicted to drugs, living on the streets,” Fuchs said. “It’s just a sad state of affairs for these kids, wish I could do more for them.”

A car parked overnight and filled with possessions in Officer Brian Fuchs’s normal patrol area (Photo: Zachariah Hughes – Alaska Public Media, Anchorage)

This interaction didn’t happen in
response to a specific call for service. Essentially, it was a spontaneous
intervention in the course of an officer patrolling his community beat. And it’s
the kind of policing that the Anchorage Police Department and Berkowitz
Administration want more of.

For the last few months, APD has
been sending officers to the same parts of town each shift, making them
responsible for safety in one area rather than the city as a whole.

“It does give you a greater sense
of ownership to the one area where you work,” said Fuchs, who has been with the
department for more than a decade and lives outside of the municipality.

In the past, officers moved
around the city during their shifts. One minute they might be responding to a
call in South Anchorage, downtown the next, and the east side after that. A lot
of this was simply triage, with available units racing between the most serious
incidents while deferring less time sensitive requests for help.

The department’s staffing levels
fell low enough that it became a central campaign issue in the 2015 mayor’s

According to Fuchs, the situation
left officers frequently scrambling to react. And the public never knew who
would show up to a call.

“If the officers are constantly
changing in an area, that can cause contention for some people if they don’t
know who they’re going to get,” Fuchs said during the course of a ride-along that
lasted the majority of his morning-to-afternoon shift.

It’s not as if under the new strategy Fuchs is confined to Mountain View. He still responds to calls in other areas. At one point in the morning there was a request for backup, and Fuchs turned his sirens on as he sped through traffic to get downtown.  

Mostly, though, he spent this particular weekday responding to lower level calls, like de-escalating a tenant-landlord dispute, transporting a woman to jail and investigating a tripped alarm inside an industrial park.

He also spent a lot of time simply rolling through Mountain View’s side-streets, waving at people, listening to scanner messages and looking to see if anything appears suspicious. Like a pile of discarded junk next to two burned out abandoned buildings. As Fuchs examined a mound of old couches, a broken TV and a bucket of spent bullet casings, a woman wandered over to him.

“Hi ma’am, how are you?”
Fuchs said cheerily. “I’m Brian.”

They began commiserating about
how all the garbage had appeared in just the last week or two. And Fuchs had
credibility in the conversation, because he had been by frequently enough understand
where the woman was coming from, how the site had already been once cleared. He
shared her frustration. He told her who at the city to call, and the phone
number she could reach him at if she needed.

Interactions like these are what
the city means when it says it wants more community policing. However, it’s
hard to measure the effectiveness of this approach in reducing crime. The new
patrol model started in March. Assembly members and the heads of several
community councils say that to the extent residents are noticing the changes,
they are pleased. 

“We’ve seen more cops,” said Mark
Butler, who lives in the North Star Community Council’s area. “They seem to be
interacting with the public a lot more.”

“It’s totally great,” said Patty Higgins of the Abbott Loop Council, adding that anecdotally people she has spoken with feel somewhat safer.

Allen Kemplen with the Fairview
Community Council has not yet seen a difference from the new policing strategy,
but says that the neighborhood generally has a cooperative relationship with
APD. Still, he believes the community boundary policy’s efficacy is constrained
by other limitations in the criminal justice system.

“I don’t see the connection with
the prosecutor’s office,” Kemplen said as an example. The point he and others
have made is that proactive policing has limits in an environment that lacks access
to substance abuse treatment, sufficient housing for the homeless, and a severely
strained legal system.

What everyone does seem to agree
on, though, is that this type of policing is only possible because APD has
grown its ranks, putting enough officers on the street that they aren’t
constantly in a state of reaction. Which, according to Fuchs, is crucial.

“If you’re constantly going call
to call to call to call to call, which we do a lot of, then you never have the
opportunity to do community-based policing, and going out and talking to people
and doing all these different things,” Fuchs said.

Currently, APD is staffed at 406
officers, significantly higher than in recent years, but still about 40
positions short of what is recommended for Anchorage based on a comprehensive
report issued by the Police Executive Research Forum.
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