EAGLE RIVER (AP) — Armed and angry, Chugiak-Eagle River residents say it’s time to get tough on crime.
“I feel safer in some Asian countries than I do in my own neighborhoods and my own community now, and that’s why we’ve decided to take a stand,” said Rep. Lora Reinbold (R-Eagle River) during a community crime forum held Jan. 6 in Eagle River.
Reinbold called the meeting, which filled the community meeting room at the Eagle River Town Center building and drew a crowd roughly twice as large as the one at a legislative Town Hall meeting immediately before and also focused heavily on crime.
During both meetings, Reinbold spoke about recently escalating crime rates, which she placed squarely on the shoulders of “incredibly weak criminal laws,” ”soft on crime” judges, and “liberal” politicians.
“Our justice system is broken,” she said.
Most of the public who spoke out about crime expressed strong agreement with Reinbold, an outspoken critic of the controversial SB 91 crime bill passed in 2016 that many blame for weakening Alaska’s criminal statutes and contributing to rising crime.
During the Town Hall, Eagle River’s Cris Eichenlaub said he would like to see homeowners are given more rights to defend themselves and their property.
The Anchorage Police Department has reported a marked increase in car thefts over the past two years, with rates jumping from around 100 or fewer a month in early 2015 to around 300 per month by the end of 2017. Eichenlaub said property theft leads to more violent crimes, and said he supports stronger penalties for thieves.
“In the 1800s we hung people for stealing horses,” he said.
APD spokesman MJ Thim said the department welcomes help from the public but does not advocate people taking criminal matters into their own hands.
“We want their help and we want them to do it in a safe manner,” he wrote in an email. “We don’t want them to put themselves in harm’s way and create public safety threat.”
Passed with bipartisan support, SB91 was designed to reduce prison costs and incarceration rates through efforts such as better substance abuse programs and prison diversion measures designed to reduce recidivism rates. But critics like Reinbold say it only emboldens criminals and has created a revolving door policy at local jails.
“Senate Bill 91 is unbelievable,” she said while presenting a slide show during the crime forum.
She blamed her fellow legislators for adding fuel to the fire.
“They’re not serious about crime, in my opinion, in Juneau,” she said.
Eagle River’s crime rates are relatively low compared to elsewhere in Anchorage, with only District 6 (South Anchorage) reporting fewer calls out of the six assembly districts. But several high profile crimes — including a pair of armed robberies in December — highlight the need for increased vigilance, Reinbold said.
“We want to take our community back,” she said.
Just one member of the public at either meeting spoke up to defend the type of reforms advocated in SB91. During the Town Hall event, Eagle River resident and Air Force veteran Erin LoPorto said studies have shown that simply increasing incarceration rates does nothing to decrease crime.
“The more we imprison people, the less effective that is in decreasing the prison cycle that we see,” said LoPorto, who said her brother is a police officer and cited the American Academy of Political and Social Science, the Criminology & Public Policy journal and research by the Canadian government.
“I’m not saying SB91 is perfect, but in general we don’t want to always increase our incarceration rate,” she said.
Reinbold wasn’t having it.
“I’ve seen a ton of that stuff and they were trying to cram it down our throats in Juneau, ok? But my goal is not to reduce recidivism in regards to how they defined recidivism. How they defined recidivism was to reduce convictions. So it all depends on how you define recidivism. I think that is lunacy, ok? Recidivism to me you have to know what they’re defining so you want to know how they’re reducing it or increasing it. To me, basically throwing criminals out on the street and causing them to — without rehabilitation, without drug treatment, etc., etc., etc. — they are creating a public safety risk. And I know troopers are getting burned out, police are getting burned out, the community is getting burned out, the shops are getting burned out. To me, what’s your goal? My goal is public safety — protecting our businesses, protecting our homes, protecting our innocent people, innocent lives, and it’s all a matter of what your goal is.”
Reinbold said a provision of SB91 that makes it easier for people facing charges — but not yet convicted — to get out without posting bail is “one of the most disturbing parts of SB91.”
Reinbold invited several guest speakers to the crime forum, including Eagle River Community Patrol founder Cliff Cook and representatives from local self-defense companies.
Cook started the patrol in November because he was “angry” about crime. He told the crowd he believes the volunteer patrol — which will soon have three members — can be an effective way of deterring criminal behavior.
“We’re not a vigilante group,” Cook said, pointing out that members must have training, undergo background checks and adhere to patrol boundaries.
Becky Hesser and David Horst of the radKIDS safety program spoke about children’s self-defense, saying they try to teach kids to be aware of their surroundings, that no one has the right to hurt them and the importance of speaking out when harmed or in danger.
“We want them to understand if something happens they have the ability to take actions and make decisions,” she said, noting that children’s most effective weapon is their voice.
“We train ‘em to yell,” Horst chimed in.
Reinbold also invited representatives from Alaska Tactical, an Anchorage company that teaches self-defense and weapons courses.
Instructor Archie Card said people who want to defend themselves have numerous options for protecting themselves including weapons — but cautioned the key is education.
“The point is to get training,” he said.
Reinbold said she plans to hold another meeting on crime and said she will continue fighting for tougher criminal laws in Juneau while supporting the rights of her constituents to protect their families and property against criminals.
“The bottom line is crime is out of control,” she said.
To make her point, Reinbold brought two signs from home, holding them up for the crowd.
“My Alarm Tells Me You’re In My House/My Gun Tells Me Not For Long,” read one.
The other was even less subtle: