Assemblywoman looks to grow neighborhood watch

Wednesday, December 13, 2017 - 12:18
  • Anchorage Assembly member Amy Demboski, left, and Jeff Hartley describe a new neighborhood watch program during a meeting of the Chugiak Community Council Thursday, Nov. 16, 2017 at the Elsie Oberg Community Center in Chugiak. (Star photo by Matt Tunseth)

Civilian crime fighting efforts continue to expand in Chugiak-Eagle River, where Anchorage Assembly member Amy Demboski is spearheading a new coordinated neighborhood watch program to supplement the work being done by the five-person Birchwood Community Patrol.

Demboski and Birchwood Community Patrol (BCP) captain Jeff Hartley outlined the neighborhood watch plan at a Nov. 16 meeting of the Chugiak Community Council. They said the watches — the plan is eventually have about a dozen working neighborhoods throughout the area — won’t be part of the BCP, but will use Hartley’s group for guidance.

“We’re layering, basically,” said Demboski, who said she’ll help organize the neighborhood watches, which will meet informally with Hartley.

The idea isn’t to bring vigilante justice to the area, but to simply create a visible presence, Demboski said.

“It’s not curing crime, but it’s definitely displacing it from our neighborhoods,” she said.

Members of the patrol are taught not to engage criminals, Hartley said, but to observe and report suspicious behavior; the idea is to deter crime and let criminals know they’re being watched.

When out patrolling Chugiak and Eagle River late at night, Demboski said she’ll sometimes pull up on suspicious vehicles and shine her headlights on them.

When people up to “shenanigans” see a community patrol or a neighborhood watch vehicle, they move along pretty quickly, she said.

“This happens a lot,” she said.

Rather than patrolling large areas, Hartley said the neighborhood watch vehicles will have more limited coverage areas — he said one might patrol the Fire Lake area, while another would take Birchwood Loop — and will focus on the area currently served by the BCP. There will be assigned patrols, though Hartley said there’s nothing stopping people from going out on their own.

The neighborhood watch expansion is the latest community policing initiative to pop up in the area this month. In early November, Cliff Cook began the Eagle River Community Patrol, which he is modeling after similar community patrols in the municipality.

In an email, Anchorage Police Department spokeswoman Renee Oistad said APD “is always thankful for an extra set of eyes” on the community.

“We would ask that any citizen who witnesses criminal/suspicious behavior to not put themselves in harm’s way; but instead to be a great witness and contact authorities as quickly as possible,” Oistad wrote.

Oistad said to her knowledge, Demboski has not formally met with the department to discuss the expanded neighborhood watch plan. However, she pointed out there is no law governing neighborhood watches said APD has no concerns about expanding such programs.

“Not as long as the participants act lawfully,” Oistad wrote.

Demboski asked the council to support the neighborhood watch program by purchasing two dozen blue and white magnetic “Neighborhood Watch” signs for $360.

Council member Burke Wonnell said he thinks the program is a good idea. With dwindling state and municipal budgets, he said neighborhood watches are a way for citizens to get involved.

“We have to do more for ourselves,” said Wonnell, who moved to support the program by funding the sign purchase.

Wonnell said the program is a “simple thing to do that’s actually productive,” and he doesn’t think the watches will encourage vigilantism.

“This is just about visibility and keeping eyes,” on the community, he said.

The resolution passed unanimously. Demboski and Hartley said they’re currently recruiting members of the neighborhood watch program and still need volunteers.

In a related measure, the community council also voted unanimously to ask APD to base its Chugiak-Eagle River officers in the area. The issue of having dedicated officers in the area has been a concern of the council for several years, and the council wants to encourage “long-term continuity,” Wonnell said.

Council president Jake Horazdovsky said the best way to fight crime in Chugiak-Eagle River would be for the department to ensure the same police work the beat in the semi rural suburban strip of communities north of Anchorage.

“Get guys who want to be out here and keep them here,” Horazdovsky said.

Last spring, a spokeswoman for Anchorage Mayor Ethan Berkowitz said the municipality was working to implement a policy where dedicated officers work the Chugiak-Eagle River beat. On Monday, Oistad said the department continues to work toward that goal.

“Due to staffing, training, scheduled leave, etc., officers who are not generally assigned to Eagle River do work shifts out there,” she wrote. “It’s APD’s goal to have the same officers assigned to the same area of town city-wide. We are not quite there yet but it’s something we are working towards.”

Email Star editor Matt Tunseth at editor@alaskatar.com

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