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Gangs blamed for crime spike in Alaska
Anchorage Daily News


November 17, 2005

ANCHORAGE, Alaska - Violent crime in Alaska increased last year, continuing a steady upswing that began in the 1990s, according to FBI statistics. Law enforcement officials say the increase is largely due to aggravated assaults involving gangs in Anchorage and have said more gang-fighting initiatives are on the way.

The increase comes even though murder, rape and robbery are down for the state. The single category of aggravated assaults caused the overall rate, which is the total number of those four offenses, to go up, the study says.

And even though Alaska's rape rate dropped nearly 9 percent from the previous year, the state still leads the nation in the rate of offenses at nearly three times the national average.

Brad Myrstol, research associate at the University of Alaska Anchorage Justice Center, said it is important to consider long-term trends when looking at the FBI report. "Crime has been at all-time lows and really (dropped) in the 1990s," he said. Since then, he said, it has been increasing. "It could be a regression to a mean," he said of the latest increase.




The report said the overall violent crime rate increased 6 percent in 2004 from 2003, putting Alaska's rate well above national averages, which are declining. Statistically, for every 100,000 people in Alaska, there are 634 victims of violent crime. In the United States, the number is 465.

Much of the increase is influenced by Anchorage, the state's largest city with nearly half its population. According to the report, the city and the surrounding Mat-Su area, which are reported as one geographical area, had a 24 percent increase in violent crime. The Anchorage Police Department, though, says the real number is closer to 7 percent because of a computer glitch resulting in inaccurate numbers going to the federal agency for its annual report.

Even with the adjustment, however, the city and Mat-Su's rate of violent crime per 100,000 residents remains significantly above the national average. It would be somewhere around 730, Anchorage police spokesman Lt. Paul Honeman said.

In June, the city announced the formation of a Gang Task Force. This week, the Police Department said it, along with other agencies including the U.S. Marshals Service; the Drug Enforcement Administration; the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives; and the FBI, plans to revive a Safe Streets Task Force in January - not seen in the city since 2001. FBI assistant special agent in charge Robert Burnham said the previously successful program went after gang members and drug dealers.

"We should have at least a dozen people together in concert to combat the problem," Honeman said of the program.

Anchorage Police Chief Walt Monegan said the department is also trying to intercept the aggravated assaults by gang members - usually assaults with weapons or assaults that involve serious injuries or multiple people - before they happen by getting to gang member families and "telling them to be aware and exercise parental controls to the best of their levels . . . and show them support systems."

A significant portion of gang-related violence tends to be gang versus gang, said police Lt. Gardner Cobb, who heads the Gang Task Force.

"It is still a fairly safe city," Honeman said. Nonviolent property crimes such as thefts are down, he said. Burglaries, however, are up 7 percent.

Rapes, though down for the state, were up for Anchorage, from 88 per 100,000 population in 2003 to 92 in 2004.

Mary Elam, program director at Standing Together Against Rape, said she is not surprised by the latest figures from the FBI. They are consistent with previous years, she said.

"It's a huge problem in Alaska, no other state even comes close," she said. "It's not surprising. It's a little disappointing."

Alaska's increase in violent crime bucks the national decline of 2.2 percent.

Both Alaska and Anchorage had falls in the number of property crimes - burglaries, larcenies and thefts, and car thefts - which are included in the FBI report. Alaska's dipped 10 percent. Anchorage's dropped 14 percent.

Maj. Howard Starbard, deputy director of the Alaska State Troopers, said in a prepared statement that he is encouraged by the numbers for the part of the state his department covers. "If you factor out the numbers from the major cities that report, the Alaska State Troopers have seen that both violent crime and property crime rates appear to be down across the board."

He said troopers will continue to fight the spread of drugs and importation of alcohol into dry communities to "continue to see the reduction of violent and property crimes in rural Alaska."


Distributed by Scripps-McClatchy Western Service,

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