Interest in community patrols grows even as funding wanes

Thursday, May 4, 2017 - 17:52
  • Star photo by Kirsten Swann Birchwood Community Patrol Captain Jeff Hartley drives through Peters Creek on April 21, 2017. Formed in 2008, the community watch group is comprised of five volunteers who patrol between North Eagle River and Eklutna seven days a week.
  • Birchwood Community Patrol Captain Jeff Hartley drives through Chugiak on April 21, 2017. The volunteer-led patrol group, which was funded by a state grant and now faces a shrinking bank account, may be off the road by the end of the year. (Star photo by Kirsten Swann)
  • Birchwood Community Patrol Captain Jeff Hartley drives through Birchwood on April 21, 2017. Formed in 2008, the community watch group is comprised of five volunteers who patrol between North Eagle River and Eklutna seven days a week. (Star photo by Kirsten Swann)
  • Birchwood Community Patrol Captain Jeff Hartley drives through Chugiak on April 21, 2017. A group of Eagle River residents hope to expand the community patrol program into downtown Eagle River and surrounding neighborhoods. (Star photo by Kirsten Swann)

The trouble usually happens in the night: Prowlers slip between parked cars, thieves strike and suspicious vehicles linger in parking lots and quiet residential neighborhoods.

For months now, Eagle River residents have noticed what seems like a surge in local crime, reported via word-of-mouth and social media. Recently, Powder Ridge resident Cliff Cook decided to take action.

“I’m old-school military retired, and I’ve always been taught, when you bring a problem forward, you also bring forward a solution to fix the problem,” Cook said.

At an April 13 Eagle River Community Council meeting, he presented his solution – a new Eagle River Community Patrol, organized by volunteers and funded by private donations.

“I just think that with the increase in crime, something needs to be done,” Cook said.

While the plan for a new community patrol has drawn local support, it’s also sparked lingering questions about funding, safety and liability.

Cook came to the April meeting armed with a 22-page packet of information. He’d spent weeks developing the plan – researching local crime statistics, community patrol models and standard operating procedures. He said he obtained much of his information from Jeff Hartley, captain of the neighboring Birchwood Community Patrol.

“It’s not like the old days in the West when you’d say, ‘Hey, we need a posse,’” Cook said. “It needs to be organized.”

In Chugiak, Hartley’s been organizing community patrols for nearly a decade. He founded the Birchwood Community Patrol in 2008 following a string of burglaries in the area, he said. These days, the five-member volunteer force includes an ex-Alaska State Trooper and Chugiak-Eagle River Assemblywoman Amy Demboski, Hartley said.

Part of the six-member Anchorage Coalition of Community Patrols, the Birchwood patrol is on duty seven days a week, driving cars marked with BCP magnets between Eagle River and Eklutna. Members follow a strict set of procedures, the patrol captain said. They’re not supposed to exit their vehicles, give orders to the public or try to mitigate any crimes in progress.

“What we are is extra eyes and ears for the police and that’s it,” Hartley said, driving his red Dodge Ram during a patrol through Chugiak one Friday evening. “We’re not a vigilante force. We’re not police officers — we don’t apprehend, we don’t investigate: That’s how you get hurt.”

In his console, he keeps a notepad for recording license plate numbers. On his dashboard sits his cellphone, ready to call police if he sees something amiss.

“Even though marijuana’s legalized, you can not be sitting in your car toking,” Hartley said, rolling slowly through the parking lot at the Loretta French Sports Complex. “If I see somebody out here and they’re puffing down on a pipe, that’s an automatic APD call.”

Officers usually respond in about 15 minutes, he said.

A 1982 graduate of Chugiak High School, Hartley grew up running wild through the woods in the area, just like any other teen, he said. Now he patrols those same woods and roads, ready to report rule-breakers.

At Loretta French, Hartley watched teenagers gathered in the skate park and a man sitting alone in an older-model sedan. He pulled out of the parking lot and made plans to come back. The man in the sedan caught his eye.

“He was staring us down,” Hartley said. “So I got his (license plate) number, and I’m going to come back and if I get the stare-down again, we’re going to have the police come out and check him out.”

At the Eagle River Community Council meeting in April, Cook described the role of a potential Eagle River Community Patrol. He said members would be passive crime-fighters, vigilant observers and good witnesses. Patrol members would not attempt to confront, apprehend or arrest any suspected criminals. They would have no police power. There would be “no John Waynes” on this patrol, Cook told the council.

“I absolutely understand what you’re saying about no John Waynes, no cowboys – and I think that’s critical to the potential success for something like this – but I’m not sure how you keep that as a part of the culture?” said ERCC board member Brian Fay. “How it develops may be independent of what the intent is.”

Ideally, the patrol would be organized around a strict set of rules and procedures, Cook said.

“The Eagle River Patrol members would not carry firearms, nightsticks, Mace or other offensive weapons,” he told ERCC board members. “That’s based on what Birchwood is doing right now.”

Fay was still concerned.

“Not currently carrying weapons: That implies to me that there is a potential?” he asked.

“I wanted to leave that open for discussion,” Cook said. “This is Alaska, you have a Second Amendment right to carry a weapon, and that is where some liability could come into play — if you are a volunteer, I tell you, ‘No, you will not carry a weapon,’ then something happens to you — then you’re gonna come back to me and say, ‘Hey, I wanted to carry a weapon, you said I couldn’t, you infringed on my Second Amendment right.’”

According to the Anchorage Police Department, community patrol members – like all residents – are allowed to carry concealed firearms within the restrictions of state law.

“That being said, anyone who carries a weapon is solely responsible for their actions,” APD spokeswoman Renee Oistad wrote in an email. “Those active in community patrols also want to make sure that their possession of a firearm does not give an indication to the public that they have any more authority, or law enforcement abilities, than any other citizen has.”

Community groups should weigh the pros and cons of armed patrols, Oistad said.

The Birchwood Community Patrol has no specific policies about firearms, Hartley said. Members are asked to sign a liability waiver, but he declined to comment on whether any of the members carry guns while on patrol.

After years of state funding, grant money is drying up and the Birchwood Community Patrol is seeking private sponsors to keep the program going, Hartley said.

“If we don’t get some funding here probably over the next sixth months, we’re done,” he said. “We’re in dire straits.”

He worried about what that would mean for the community – no doubt an increase in property crime, he said. Since the patrol first hit the streets, Hartley believes it’s effectively helped keep Chugiak quiet and safe. He has no statistics, but plenty of anecdotes.

“It’s what the people tell me: ‘You guys are doing a good job and I think you’re making an impact,’” Hartley said. “I’ve been told that by community council presidents, I’ve been told that by community council general membership, I’ve been stopped on the street.”

The Anchorage Police Department sees community patrols as an asset, Oistad wrote in an email. Extra sets of eyes are “always a good thing.”

“The APD has always maintained that solving crime is a communitywide effort,” she wrote. “We can not do it alone.”

Without money, though, the Birchwood Community Patrol may be forced to fold by the end of the year, Hartley said.

Beginning in 2008, the patrol was funded annually by thousands of dollars in state grants, Hartley said. The grant money paid for first aid and CPR training, gas cards, car magnets, pepper spray, road flares, flashlights, radios and embroidered shirts, jackets, ball caps and matching Carhartt pants for patrol members.

When the grant ran out and the state budget tightened, the patrol began to rely on a separate fuel grant given to the Anchorage Coalition of Community Patrols, Hartley said. But that money won’t last forever, he said — and neither does equipment and first aid certifications.

Hartley said he plans to continue asking for support from local businesses and other organizations.

So does Cook, who estimated it would cost approximately $5,000 to establish a sustainable Eagle River Community Patrol similar to Birchwood’s. A week after the April community council meeting, he pitched his plan to the Powder Ridge Homeowners Association. Next, he said, he plans on approaching the Chugiak-Eagle River Chamber of Commerce.

The yet-to-be-formed patrol already has plenty of willing volunteers, Cook said. Now it just needs time to figure out the details.

“It’s not going to happen overnight,” Cook said. “We want to do it the right way.”

Contact Star reporter Kirsten Swann at [email protected]

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