Turning the tide of property crime requires all-hands effort

Anchorage residents have been increasingly certain that property crime in Alaska’s largest city is out of control. Now we have the numbers showing it’s true.

Anchorage Police Department data tells a startling story: a 56 percent year-over-year increase in vehicle thefts during the first half of 2017. More than 3,100 vehicles stolen in the city last year. Nearly 400 car thefts in January 2018, the worst month on record for the crime.

These are the facts: Anchorage has a big, big problem with property crime, and vehicle theft in particular. That problem has been getting worse for the past several years. As it stands, 2018 could be even worse than last year. As some have said, it makes Anchorage feel like Gotham City, but without Batman.

So what’s driving this problem, and how do we stop it?

There are undoubtedly multiple factors driving the car-theft epidemic, but there’s one that’s plain as day: The opioid epidemic. It’s exacerbating several other issues plaguing the state — prison overcrowding, high health care costs, homelessness — and it’s a big driver for thieves needing quick money for a fix. Solving the vehicle-theft problem and keeping it solved will have to happen alongside a solution to the opioid crisis — otherwise, the underlying issue will still exist and give people an incentive to steal.

A solution to the opioid epidemic is no small task itself. The Alaska Legislature has taken steps to help curb some of the contributors to that problem, such as funding overdose kits and passing laws that target overprescription of addictive pain medication. But we can’t say we have a handle on the issue — in fact, the availability of cheap heroin and, more recently, fentanyl, have made matters worse by providing a path for users to more dangerous and habit-forming drugs.

Alaska needs a two-pronged focus. We must curb demand for illegal opioids through increased availability of rehabilitation programs that use less-dangerous drugs like suboxone and methadone to help users wean themselves off their habits, and make sure they follow through after treatment and stay sober. Simultaneously, we must redouble efforts to reduce supply, by tracking down and vigorously prosecuting those importing and dealing the drugs. And as the friends and family members of those dealing with addiction, we must support them and hold them accountable. Getting clean is hard; it’s nearly impossible when no one is holding your hand and watching over your shoulder.

With regard to property crime, and particularly vehicle theft, the scope of the problem is such that residents and even APD feel overwhelmed by the volume of crimes. Adding staffing and tasking more officers to focus on property crime would surely help, but those resources can’t be created out of thin air. Putting more focus on property crime will mean less on other offenses, or increased costs for the municipality and thereby taxpayers. If we want this problem fixed — and we do — we must reconcile ourselves with one of those two scenarios.

As for what we can do as individual residents, it’s hard to guarantee that your car won’t be stolen, but it’s easy to at least make sure you won’t be an easy target. Always lock your car doors, and double-check to make sure. Don’t leave valuables inside where others can see them. Consider a car security system or anti-theft device. In the winter, don’t leave your car running — locked or not — with the keys inside.

Property crime can be hard to combat, but for a nonviolent crime, it feels uniquely violating to victims. Our vehicles and our homes feel like extensions of who we are — they’re personal spaces. Turning around property crime in Anchorage is essential to rebuilding our sense of security and community. That can’t start soon enough.

—Anchorage Daily News, July 1, 2018

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