Columns 2016

Anchorage should be proud of its police

I think it’s time to take a break from the horror of our current presidential campaign and turn inward just a bit. Because, quite frankly, once the word for a baby cat entered into the national debate in a presidential election, all hope that the campaigns would somehow get back to real issues is lost. All hope that our current presidential campaigns will not embarrass us on a global level has vanished. It’s time to turn our thoughts towards something locally that we can honestly take pride in.

Have you noticed that our Anchorage Police Department has been in three separate standoffs in the past few weeks? In only one of those standoffs did someone die. Even that death has yet to be confirmed as caused by police actions or suicide. If it was a police bullet that killed the victim, it was only after 42 hours of trying for a peaceful resolution. 42 hours! And that was even with two of their officers being wounded during a gunfire exchange.

I understand that there are policing issues that anger some people in Anchorage, such as the rise in crime in certain parts of the city. Certainly the numbers of murders that have already occurred in 2016 are cause for concern. And in a city as diverse as Anchorage, there is inevitably going to be some who feel the cops are not fair to them.

But there is one thing our police department seems to do very well. They understand restraint. They seemingly understand that not every confrontation needs to end in bloodshed. They are willing to back away to avoid an escalating situation and bide their time for a chance to make the arrest without endangering anyone… themselves, the general public or the potential perp.

Given the schism that has overtaken way too much of our country over police shootings, I feel privileged to live in a town where our police understand that a gun isn’t always the answer. They understand that high-speed chases should be ended if they are endangering the public. They don’t feel as though their collective manhood is on the line if they don’t catch the speeding vehicle. They are willing to take the time to try and resolve the situation without weapons. What a concept.

In the first case of the most recent standoffs, it was resolved peacefully with no one… not the police, the public or the perp… being injured. In the most recent case, the police deliberately backed away in order to de-escalate the situation and picked up the person later, quietly, with no threat of gunfire.

In the case where a man died, I can think of far too many places in America where the police would have conducted a full frontal assault on any house where an officer had been shot. I don’t know of many other police departments that would have tried for 42 hours to resolve the standoff without more violence. Given the military SWAT team equipment most police forces now have, I’m guessing that if they’d really wanted to, they could have flattened the house in seconds.

Almost every cop in my childhood neighborhood had grown up there. They knew everyone. Policing back then was a neighborhood thing. Police walked a beat and got to know everyone on their beat. That’s where most boys in my neighborhood got the idea of becoming a cop.

Now that we’ve become a country of suburbs and cars, the beat cop is more of a rarity. Yet somehow the Anchorage police department has seemingly kept some of that beat cop/neighborhood ethos alive. They’ve done this despite the challenges of policing in a multicultural city where it sometimes seems as though most people are only ever seen through the windshield of their car.

Alaska is a tough place for state troopers, police officers and village public safety officers. We are a state full of guns and people get shot a lot. The entire spectrum of public safety officers in this state has seen colleagues shot and killed way too often. Yet even when police have had to use their weapons, most investigations have shown no police misconduct.

While way too many American cities and towns are erupting in protests over perceived police violence, Anchorites can take a good deal of pride in the fact that our police department works on the theory that violence is a solution of last resort.