Tough task ahead for Berkowitz to boost Anchorage police force to 400 (Alaska Dispatch News)

By Nathaniel Herz

Just about every candidate for Anchorage mayor campaigned on beefing up the Anchorage Police Department. 

The candidate who won, now Mayor-elect Ethan Berkowitz, had a specific target: Grow the force to more than 400 police officers from its current size of about 350.

Boosting the department’s numbers would allow officers to do more community policing, which Berkowitz defined broadly in an interview Friday as giving cops more time to do crime prevention rather than focusing on enforcement and arrests.

But growing the department is likely to be a lengthy and potentially costly process. Berkowitz said he hoped the force could grow to 400 within a year and a half, but a top official from the city’s police union -- which endorsed Berkowitz -- said it would take at least twice that long.

“Under the best of circumstances, with our current trends, it’s a minimum of three years,” Gerard Asselin, the police union’s president, said in a phone interview. “And oh, by the way: We have to find the money to do it.”

Berkowitz was the only Democrat out of four major candidates who vied for Anchorage’s top elected job. But even his most conservative opponents agreed that the city needs more cops.

APD currently has 324 sworn officers and 27 recruits, down from 372 sworn officers and 22 recruits in 2009, the year current Mayor Dan Sullivan took office, according to figures provided by the department.

There’s a police academy with a class of 20 scheduled to start later this month. But the recent staffing shortfall has been accompanied by cuts to specialized units like those that focus on thefts and traffic enforcement.

There’s no accepted nationwide standard for the right number of police officers for a given population or land area, but anecdotally, it’s clear APD is understaffed, said Troy Payne, an assistant professor at University of Alaska’s Justice Center who specializes in crime prevention and data analysis.

Based on his discussions with members of the department, Payne said, “it does seem like APD officers are busy all the time.” Berkowitz has suggested the staffing shortfall is connected to what his campaign characterized in March as a “surge in dangerous crime.” And he’s said growing the force would allow APD to do more community policing, which would make the city safer.

While the city has seen a sharp spike in shootings and killings in the first part of this year, Anchorage’s longer-term crime trends have been relatively stable. 

Data collected by the FBI show the number of violent crimes in Anchorage fell by 1.75 percent between 2012 and 2013. Violent crimes were on track to rise by 0.75 percent in 2014 based on figures through June of that year, the latest available.

Research -- like one broad study last year in the Journal of Experimental Criminology -- has also shown community policing doesn’t actually do much to reduce crime, Payne said. 

Instead, it tends to make citizens more satisfied with police, which Payne said shouldn’t be discounted since Anchorage doesn’t have the same type of systemic problems with its police force as cities like Baltimore and Ferguson, Missouri.

“What’s much more important in today’s environment, honestly, is satisfaction, fairness, and people feeling good about their police department,” Payne said. “These are now outcomes that we have to pay attention to.”

He added: “If Anchorage wants that kind of service from their police department, frankly, they’re going to have to pay for it.”

It will cost some $2.7 million to run the police academy that starts in May, according to a spokeswoman for APD, though she couldn’t provide a breakdown of how much it costs to add each officer to the city’s payroll.

Asselin, the police union president, said one potential impediment to Berkowitz’s plans to expand the force to 400 is the city’s tax cap. 

The cap limits the growth of overall Anchorage tax collections based on a formula pegged to inflation, population change, and other factors -- which means a substantial boost to the police department’s budget could require either a new source of revenue, or cutting other city services, Asselin said.

Conservatives on the Anchorage Assembly, which will have to approve Berkowitz’s budget, could also present an obstacle -- though they’re currently a minority on the 11-member body. 

One of them, South Anchorage Assemblywoman Jennifer Johnston, endorsed some growth in the police force and noted that the city had already scheduled its police academy set to start this month. 

But she wouldn’t commit to endorsing Berkowitz’s target of 400 officers, noting the shakiness of the state’s oil-based economy.

“There’s a lot of variables, so I think it would be rash to go down that line of thinking,” Johnston said in a phone interview.

Berkowitz said in an interview Friday he would stay below the tax cap. And he said he could find ways to pay for more officers without reducing other departments’ budgets.

Asked for examples, Berkowitz suggested that the police department could save money through strategic deployment of officers to “areas where they have to respond more.” And, he added, “creative types of financing” could help pay for academies. 

A spokeswoman subsequently said that approach could include what’s called a Pay for Success bond, in which philanthropic and other private investors pay initial costs for a service. Those costs are subsequently reimbursed by the government only if a specific goal is met.

Even if the academies are funded, however, the department only has so much capacity to conduct them -- and as new officers are added to the police force, about 20 retire or leave each year.

Growing the department by 20 officers per year or more is “pretty aggressive,” said Assemblyman Paul Honeman, a retired city police officer who chairs the Assembly’s Public Safety Committee.

“It’s possible to grow the department,” he said. But, he added: “It’s not going to be something that’s done overnight.”