Chugiak Community Council talks crime, elects new members

Friday, November 10, 2017 - 11:36
  • Members of the Chugiak Community Council vote for alternate board members during the council’s monthly meeting on Oct. 19, 2017 at the Elsie Oberg Center in Chugiak. (Star photo by Matt Tunseth)

Crime is on the minds of local residents, who continue to voice their concerns about everything from an increase in vehicle thefts to drug needles found on residential streets in community forums throughout Chugiak-Eagle River.

At the Oct. 19 meeting of the Chugiak Community Council, residents turned a planned talk on neighborhood crime by an APD detective (he had to cancel) into an impromptu debate on the merits of Senate Bill 91, a crime bill passed in 2016 by the Alaska Legislature. One council member said SB91 is too weak on crime, while a member of the audience said she fears vigilantism from people taking the law into their own hands.

Anchorage Police Department officer Angie Fraize spoke up to give her perspective. Speaking as a member of the community and not on behalf of the department, Fraize said the best way for the public to help police is to be the eyes and ears of the department.

“Being really good witnesses is what we tell people,” Fraize said.

Fraize urged anyone wanting to learn more about how APD conducts its investigations to attend the department’s Citizen Academy.

“It trains you on all this stuff,” she said.

After community members asked about what to do when they see suspicious activity in their neighborhoods, Fraize said it’s imperative that people call APD — even for seemingly minor issues.

“Call 786-8900 with every concern you have,” she said.

Some audience members said they’ve been finding used needles on the street. Fraize said the best thing to do is dispose of the needles in a hard plastic container. Chugiak Volunteer Fire and Rescue Department chief Tim Benningfield said that people can drop off used needles at fire stations if they’re unsure how to dispose of them.

Later in the meeting Anchorage Assembly member Amy Demboski said the Birchwood Community Patrol — of which she is a member — continues to actively patrol the area. Demboski said she thinks there’s a need for more such patrols, and is currently looking into new ways to expand the citizen effort.

“I’m thinking more like neighborhood patrols,” she told the council.

An outspoken opponent of SB91, Demboski said she thinks community members are needed to help APD deal with an increase in crime.

“We have to find more ways to get eyes on the street,” she said.

Demboski said she plans to announce at least one community meeting on the topic in the near future, and told the audience to keep an eye on Chugiak and Eagle River Facebook crime pages for updates.

Also speaking about crime at the meeting was Rep. Cathy Tilton, who said she would also support a full repeal of SB91. At public meetings in Eagle River and the Mat-Su (Tilton represents both areas in the Alaska State House), she said constituents have been clear in their opposition to the bill.

“The overwhelming response we get is ‘Repeal SB91,’” she said.

Both Tilton and Demboksi briefly sparred with board member Burke Wonnell, who wondered if a full repeal of the state law would make sense so soon after passage. He said high levels of incarceration don’t work, and the bill was designed to keep people out of prison and reduce the overall costs to taxpayers.

“It costs $50,000 a year to keep someone locked up,” he said.

Wonnell said drugs are the primary driver behind a recent spike in property crimes.

“What we’ve got is a really serious drug problem in our community,” he said.

Demboski countered with the argument that going easier on low-level crime isn’t working.

“People have to be accountable,” she said.

Wonnell said he doesn’t believe there’s a correlation between the 2016 passage of SB91 and increases in crime.

“I don’t know there’s a causal correlation between those two things,” he said, drawing guffaws from the crowd.

Demboski disagreed.

“It’s getting unbearable, frankly,” she said.

During the debate, one member of the audience, Kelly Barnes, said she would be willing to pay higher taxes to keep more criminals behind bars.

“I’d rather put them in jail and pay it out of my taxes,” she said.

Demboski said that attitude sums up what she’s been hearing in public.

“There comes a point when public safety should be ahead of criminals,” she said.

In the end, the 25-minute discussion ended with no consensus aside from the fact crime is a topic of concern for everyone. Additionally, Wonnell pointed out that the federal government has recently increased its prosecutions in Alaska.

“It’s not like nobody is doing anything,” he said.

In other action, the council:

— Held an election for its open board seats. Running unopposed and winning a seat was Rashae Johnson, who said her background is in journalism and grant writing as well as raising six children. Running for a vacant alternate seat were Patrick Donnelly and Jill Hall. After a brief discussion on voting bylaws, Donnelly won the seat by a simple majority of hands raised.

— Heard from Rep. Tilton and Rep. Dan Saddler on the Legislature’s fourth special session. Saddler said he doesn’t “think we’re going to get anything done on revenue.” Both said they hope to make progress on SB91, with each expression cautious optimism about the potential for a proposed fix — SB54 — to alleviate some of the public’s concerns about the crime bill.

— Heard a report from CVFRD chief Tim Benningfield, who said the department has responded to more than 811 calls this year. “That is ahead of schedule,” he said.

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