In the Wake of George Floyd: Policing in Anchorage
By the Alaska Black Caucus - Allies for Change Richard Emanuel, Regan Brooks, Anna Bosin, Mark Foster and Kir Moore
Photo by Joshua Branstetter
In the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, the worldwide hallmark of 2020, George Floyd was killed by a Minneapolis policeman in broad daylight while bystanders pleaded for his release and recorded his demise. Floyd’s death horrified the nation and reignited calls for police reform.
In Anchorage, people took to the streets in peaceful protest and the Anchorage Assembly debated criminal justice reform. The Anchorage Daily News investigated deadly force in Alaska, studying 43 killings between 2015 and mid-2020. Statistics across America show that BIPOC communities – Black, Indigenous and people of color – suffer disproportionately from criminal justice inequities. BIPOC citizens are stopped, questioned, and arrested at higher rates than whites. They tend to serve harsher sentences and are more likely to die at the hands of law enforcement.
The Alaska Black Caucus is among the groups pushing for criminal justice reform. On Nov. 29, ABC held a virtual Community Conversation on Law Enforcement and BIPOC Communities. Moderated by attorney Rex Butler, guests included Anchorage Police Chief Justin Doll and two APD Deputy Chiefs. Panelists addressed scores of questions and comments from community members. For a recording of the conversation, go to https://fb.watch/2ehlw6vd_t/
Police bodycams were the first topic raised in the virtual event. Used around the country, including in Juneau, Fairbanks and Kodiak, Alaska State Troopers and Anchorage police are still exceptions.
Supporters say bodycams improve police accountability and transparency and build community trust. They provide “an additional layer of protection” for both the public and police, ABC board member Leroy Williams says. Bodycams “make it easier to respond fairly and objectively… where the ‘one bad apple’ in the APD may have gone a little too far.”
The widespread acceptance of bodycams reminds Williams of the attitude toward lights and cameras on utility poles in “high crime” neighborhoods. “What’s the harm?” people ask. “If you don’t have anything to hide, then why should you object to be viewed doing ‘nothing wrong?’”
Cost has been a barrier to bodycams in Anchorage. Cameras are part of a larger system that includes storage and management of video data in quantities far beyond what APD’s “frankly antiquated” computers can handle, Doll said.
APD’s computer system dates from 1997. The Anchorage Assembly is weighing asking voters to approve a bond measure to pay for computers and bodycams. To keep property taxes down and perhaps speed the process, the Alaska Black Caucus and some Assembly members prefer to seek grant money from the U.S. Department of Justice or other sources that have helped fund bodycam systems across the country since 2014.
Besides balancing benefits and costs, thorny policy questions surround bodycams. When should cameras be on or off, and who decides? Who will get access to video files, and how long should they be kept? There are privacy concerns, too. Bodycams capture bystanders without their permission, and even arrested suspects are innocent until proven guilty. Despite all this, the demand for bodycams is growing, and APD is on board.
“We would love to have body cameras,” Chief Doll told Conversation participants, adding that the police union welcomes bodycams, too.
The Anchorage Assembly has already adopted other reforms. Mobile Crisis Teams trained in psychiatric and social work will soon respond to some calls now handled by police. For homeless Alaskans or citizens with emotional problems, a patrol car with flashing lights at the curb or armed police at the door can heighten tensions and provoke fear. Soon, dispatchers will have an alternative: teams armed with techniques to de-escalate and defuse explosive emotions.
In October, the Anchorage Equal Rights Commission named a Founding Committee to shape a Community-Police Advisory Council. Supported by the U.S. Department of Justice and based on citizen input, the Founding Committee’s first charge is to evaluate community-police relations in Anchorage today. Better transparency and accountability of officers, more diverse recruiting for the Police Academy and bodycam policy may all be reviewed. Formed by the Equal Rights Commission, the Founding Committee’s goals include “promoting the equality of all citizens before the law,” steps toward what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. called “the Beloved Community.”
The deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and so many others have frayed and strained relations between Black communities and police across the country. Rex Butler, moderator of the Nov. 29 Community Conversation, says racism is alive in Anchorage, too, even within the APD.
“They’ve lost some discrimination law suits over the last couple of years,” Butler says. “Two officers, one Hispanic and one Black, sued them, talking about racism in the ranks. And the department lost.”
A defense lawyer, Butler sees racism in Alaska’s courts and prisons, too. “People of color are overly represented. If you sit in on arraignments in appellate courts,” Butler slows to emphasize his words, “it is plain to see.” When Anchorage’s Community-Police Advisory Council is up and running, its vital work will begin. The murders of George Floyd and others remind us all that such work is essential.
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