New community patrol earns council support

Thursday, January 18, 2018 - 14:52
  • Attendees at an Eagle River Community Council meeting take an informal vote on whether or not to support the establishment of the Eagle River Community Patrol during a council meeting held Thursday, Dec. 14 at the Eagle River Town Center meeting room. (Star photo by Matt Tunseth)
  • People wait for the start of an Eagle River Community Council meeting Thursday, Dec. 14, 2017 in Eagle River. (Star photo by Matt Tunseth)
  • Eagle River Community Council founder Cliff Cook speaks during a meeting of the Eagle River Community Council Thursday, Dec. 14, 2017 in the Eagle River Town Center community meeting room. (Star photo by Matt Tunseth)

At 9:41 p.m. Thursday, with the night’s tension finally bled from the room like steam from a pressure cooker, the Eagle River Community Council quietly adjourned its final — and most heated — meeting of the year to the delight of the dozen or so people still in attendance. Municipal parks and rec director John Rodda dutifully crossed the room and began helping stack chairs, having spent much of the past hour waiting patiently in the doorway as the forum passed then pulled away from its 9 p.m. curfew.

The unusually widespread pattern of chairs was the only hint at the significance of the meeting to the more than 50 people who sat, stood and sweated through the evening’s discussion about a newly formed community patrol in Eagle River; the cooperation seen by those putting the chairs away, however, provided a decent (if incomplete) metaphor for the consensus reached by the council’s seven-member board 30 minutes earlier.

After two hours of discussion, the council passed without objection a motion to support the Eagle River Community Patrol, a one-man community policing initiative started this fall by Eagle River’s Cliff Cook. Though Cook’s group (he plans to add a second member soon) has no official structure or organization — such as nonprofit status — Cook’s patrol is recognized by the Anchorage Coalition of Community Patrols (ACCP), an oversight group that operates within the broader Anchorage Federation of Community Councils (FCC).

STRUCTURAL CONCERNS

Much of the back-and-forth Thursday centered around the organization and structure of the patrols, which have strict internal guidelines for volunteers but are not governed or licensed by any state or municipal statute and don’t technically need community council support to operate.

“Do you need anyone’s permission to do this?” board president Michael Foster asked Cook.

“No,” he answered.

In its online “How to Start a Patrol” guidelines, the ACCP recommends anyone wanting to start a patrol engage local community councils:

“Talk to the Community Council panel about your plans to start a Community Patrol,” reads one of nine bullet points listed by the coalition. “Support from the Council is always good to have. You can also invite other patrols members to attend this meeting for support.”

Community patrols have existed in Anchorage for decades, and eight are currently recognized by the FCC: Bayshore/Klatt, Birchwood, College Gate, Eagle River/Eagle River Valley/South Fork, Mountain View, Nunaka Valley, Oceanview/Old Seward and Scenic Foothills. Patrol members commonly help with traffic control, keep watch at schools and work to be “a visible deterrent and the eyes and ears of the Eagle River residents.” Cook said he sees the role as nonconfrontational; if patrol members see a crime in progress, they’ll report it but won’t try to intervene.

“We’re going to observe, we’re going to call and we’re going to leave when APD gets there,” he said.

Mark Butler, manager of the Community Council Center told the board bylaws vary among the various patrols. He said patrol volunteers are private citizens and have no formal relationship with the Anchorage Police Department; patrol members decide for themselves whether to carry firearms, though he said he thinks it’s a minority of patrol members.

“A few — very few — of our people choose to pack a weapon,” Butler said.

Cook said the Eagle River patrol will adhere to the FCC’s guidelines for members, which say members must:

— Be at least 21 years of age

— Possess a valid Alaska driver’s license and have a “satisfactory” driving record

— Have no felony convictions

— Have no misdemeanor convictions related to sex-related and/or moral turpitude charges

— Have no misdemeanor convictions within ten ears of filing the application

— Pass a background check

— Possess competent written/verbal English skills

— Successfully complete an oral review

— Attend monthly team meetings at assigned area

— Perform a minimum 12 hours of service each month

— Attend ACCP training and meetings

Cook assured the board FCC oversight is thorough.

“Any time they deem we are doing something wrong, we’re done,” he said.

COMMUNICATION ISSUES

Cook has attended several Eagle River Community Council meetings over the past few months, but after receiving what he felt was tepid support, he decided to get the patrol off the ground in November.

“Frankly, I got tired of it,” he told the crowd Thursday night.

He’s since logged more than 500 miles patrolling Eagle River in his pick-up truck, which he’s outfitted with “Eagle River Community Patrol” decals.

The perceived lack of council support is what led to Thursday’s packed house. Cook is an active Facebook user, and a campaign to support his patrols garnered widespread support on the social media platform. Many of those in attendance had never before been to a council meeting, and some seemed to have arrived itching for a fight. That feeling appeared at least somewhat mutual as board member Tim Ebben read the minutes from several previous meetings to show the council had never expressed anything other than cautious support for Cook’s efforts.

“I believe most of your are here because you believe we have not supported the community patrol,” Ebben said as he began reading from the minutes starting in February, when the issue first came to the council’s attention.

Ebben pointed out that the council had discussed the issue in March and April, when Cook told them he planned to model the patrols after the decade-old Birchwood Community Patrol. The council suggested Cook take it up at a meeting of the Chugiak-Eagle River Advisory Board, which meets irregularly when issues of shared importance are raised by multiple area community councils. Cook said he found that wasn’t an appropriate forum for the issue, and it lie dormant for the summer due to Cook’s understanding the council didn’t meet during those months. Ebben explained Cook returned to the council in September (when there wasn’t a quorum) and October, when Cook again reported on his efforts to form a patrol and it was left as an open agenda item.

In November, Ebben said the council heard from assemblywoman Amy Demboski, who told them she had been working with Cook, who started the patrol Nov. 7. Ebben at that time it still wasn’t clear to the council what its role was in establishing the patrol, a question he posed to Demboski.

“I asked, ‘What is our role as a community council?’” he recalled, reading from the November minutes. “Amy said that she feels it’s a symbiotic relationship between the entities and passing information — as Cliff articulated earlier. And Amy said that they are separate and she feels the support of the council is functional and provides a route for development. And I agreed. And it looks like forming a 501(c)3 to support this is the way to go, and that was brought up because that is what Birchwood has gone to.”

He said he took exception to the idea the council was unsupportive of the patrol, saying it had a hard time endorsing something that hadn’t been established.

“I believe we’ve given a whole lot of support, but it’s hard to write a resolution of endorsement when it hasn’t existed until November 7th,” he said.

Board member Chuck Homan said members had been reluctant to throw their support behind something that isn’t really formalized.

“That just exists in words, it’s not a legal entity,” he said.

Board member Julie Ebben echoed those sentiments, saying the board was simply trying to do its due diligence.

“We’re only trying to follow what the other ones do,” she said.

Meeting attendees weren’t buying it, and several began to speak out of turn — leading to Foster loudly calling for order.

“Whoa!” he said as one man tried to speak without being recognized. “Sir, please!”

Foster expressed frustration with the crowd’s lack of understanding.

“We’re here every month and we have been trying to work through this thing,” he told them.

Foster asked for an informal vote, during which most of the people in attendance raised theirs to indicate support for Cook’s patrol. Nobody raised their hands against.

Still, Cook’s patience also seemed to be wearing thin. He told the board he’s tried to “make sure we do it right,” but said the council’s requests for him to form a nonprofit in order to form the patrol were off base.

“We do not need to be a 501(c)3 to volunteer to keep Eagle River safe,” he said. “That’s bull crap and I’m sorry.”

The crowd burst into applause.

DISSENT AND CONSENSUS

Cook has not formed a nonprofit, though his patrol does have a list of standard operating procedures and follows the background-check guidelines set out by the coalition. He’s self-financed, but said anyone who wishes to donate to the patrol can do so through the coalition.

Tim Ebben pointed out the board simply wanted “structure” and guidelines for the patrol to follow before giving its endorsement.

“What we’re trying to say is, let’s get it organized,” he said.

Cook has said he plans to patrol within the boundaries of the Eagle River, Eagle River Valley and South Fork community councils. The Birchwood Community Patrol currently operates within that council’s area, although one member — assemblywoman Amy Demboski — says she does not adhere to the patrol’s boundaries and frequently runs Birchwood patrols in Eagle River.

Demboski tried to summarize the friction at play Thursday:

“I’ve listened to this for months, and frankly it’s getting on my nerves,” she said. “We have two groups of people who all want the same thing. We have some that want to see some accountability, we have others who do not want to create the structure. It’s not complicated, this isn’t rocket science. What I would recommend is the council pass some sort of resolution or statement of support and recommend that there is a development of an actual structure that indicates who’s in charge…and then also indicate how people could make donations to some sort of organization. Now, whether it’s your own 501(c)3 or whatever it is, or through the FCC, that can be done. Everybody wants to see the same thing. People are wanting to be pissed off, and it’s not right. What we want to do is get the bad guys off of our streets, out of our neighborhoods. And it’s time we put the petty bickering aside, get off this crap and just get the mission done.”

Foster said he was planning to bring a motion before the group at the end of the discussion. At that point, former council president Brian Fay told the group the council’s role from the beginning has been to represent all points of view — including those not expressed by those in attendance Thursday.

“Please understand there are un-represented or under-represented voices that have concerns,” he said.

That’s when a man in the crowd stormed out, ignoring pleas from others in the room for him to stay. It was also around that time the room’s air conditioning system kicked in.

Another man, Ken Whitlock, called the board “a stumbling block” to the establishment of a new patrol.

“Crime is running rampant,” he said.

Drew Young questioned board members’ claims of dissenting voices.

“How are we knowing they are under-represented?” he asked.

Fay said some people might not be comfortable speaking out in a public forum where the vast majority hold differing opinions. Both he and Foster said they had heard from people via email who had expressed concerns about the patrols.

“It is not at all uncommon for people who are dissenting to not contribute,” Fay said.

Foster reminded meeting attendees the board’s role is to simply advise the Anchorage Assembly and said the point of holding meetings on the topic was to learn more about Cook’s fledgling patrol.

“We’re just trying to get answers,” he said.

In the end, the board decided to unanimously pass a motion of support for the council, a step Cook said the South Fork Community Council has already taken. The motion has a sunset clause of one year, at which time it will be reexamined.

The crowd applauded the decision; over the next half-hour, all but a handful trickled toward the exits as the council wrapped up its regular agenda items, which were unremarkable.

As he adjourned, Foster noted the council’s next meeting will be Jan. 11.

“I expect to see the same turnout.”

Email Star editor Matt Tunseth at editor@alaskastar.com

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