As part of a research project undertaken in late 1994 with the Alaska Department of Public Safety, the Justice Center conducted a public opinion telephone survey concerning quality of life and public safety issues in Alaska communities. The project was funded by a federal grant from the Office of Justice Programs.
One purpose of this survey was to obtain the opinions of Alaska residents about the most serious problems in their community and the relationship of public safety agencies to the perceived problems. A secondary concern was to obtain information regarding the actions which residents believe most appropriate for dealing with the problems they identified. Among the items, interviewees were asked to identify: first, the most serious problem in their community; second, the most serious public safety concern; and third, possible solutions to the problem. Interviewers contacted a statewide sample of 603 residents.
In an effort to avoid bias, interviewers explained only that the survey was being conducted for the University of Alaska; the Department of Public Safety was not mentioned. The answers obtained were recorded and consolidated into broad categories to facilitate understanding.
Major Community Problem
Perhaps the most striking feature of the responses is the absence of a consensus on community problems. Interviewees cited a range of problems from drug abuse to cold weather. The most frequently cited serious problem (Table 1) concerns drugs, alcohol, substance abuse and associated crime; however, statewide, only one out of four respondents (24.8%) identified problems in this category as the most serious overall problem in their community.
The second category of most frequently cited serious problem_noted by 15.2 per cent of respondents statewide_involve concerns related to crime and violence. More specifically, interviewees identified increasing crime and decreasing safety, violent crimes and killings.
Economic issues affecting Alaska communities, primarily lack of jobs, unemployment and the general economy, formed the third most frequently cited serious problem area, with about 7.8 per cent of Alaskans noting such concerns as primary.
Many Alaskans identified problems associated with the behavior of juveniles, their attitudes and criminality. Still others voiced concerns with what they perceive as a breakdown in family and home life, parental authority, indifference and apathy. Concerns about the quality of education are also prominent across the state, with people commenting on the quality of schools, a lack of funding and the quality of teachers. Aside from the concerns voiced by a fairly large group of people about violence and violent crime, the only other crimes or types of crimes identified as "serious problems" were theft and burglary, and drinking and driving.
Public Safety Concerns
Following the question regarding the most serious community problem, each interviewee was asked to "narrow" his or her focus and identify the most serious public safety issue facing the community. Fewer respondents answered this question than answered the previous question, perhaps because in some instances they had already identified a public safety issue as the most serious problem. (Again, the public safety concerns voiced by respondents were coded into broad categories of like or similar responses. The statewide categorizations are displayed in Table 2.) In assessing the relative importance of some of the concerns expressed, it may be useful to keep in mind that answers to open-format questions reflect "top-of-mind" issues immediately important to the interviewee. The range of specific public safety problems identified was as broad as Alaska is diverse, including concerns about substance abuse, road conditions, teen pregnancy and winter weather. It is clear, based on the responses, that adult Alaskans are not of one mind on public safety problems. Many of the concerns expressed were unique and so closely tied to a community or a respondent they were mentioned only once. Moreover, none of the problems identified was mentioned by more than 16 per cent of the interviewees. The range of these responses seems to illustrate the importance of a community-by-community approach to public safety problems.
"Crime," not further specified, is the third most frequently mentioned public safety concern, at 9.1 per cent. The level of concern about drinking and driving vehicles was striking, as was the level of concern with law enforcement services.
Alcohol and drug use and substance abuse were, as in the previous question, the most frequently cited problem, with 15.9 per cent of the interviewees identifying this area as the most serious public safety concern. The second most commonly cited group of public safety concerns were those relating to streets and roadways, with 10.3 per cent identifying a broad range of street and highway-related deficiencies and issues as the most serious problem in their communities.
Respondents were also asked their suggestions for solutions to the problems they identified. The solutions offered are organized in Table 3 by categories of the cited public safety concerns. For example, of the respondents who identified alcohol, drugs and substance abuse as the most pressing problem facing their communities, one-fifth (20.2%) suggested educational efforts to be the most effective solution. As a solution to alcohol and drug problems, "family ties, parental responsibility and involvement" formed the second most frequently offered suggestion. A number of people (7.2%) recommended strengthening laws and making penalties associated with drug and alcohol abuse tougher. Still others (6.5%) suggested legally restricting access to alcohol and drugs, while others (3.0%) suggested legalizing drugs. About five per cent suggested funding more law enforcement officers in an effort to solve the problems of drug and alcohol abuse in their communities.
Concerns about roadway hazards, poor maintenance, sidewalk problems and snow removal were cited as most pressing by 10.3 per cent of respondents. Subsequent suggestions for handling these types of problems included better road maintenance and repair, increased funding and taxing for roadway maintenance, and more snow removal on roadways and sidewalks.
Education was the answer most commonly suggested by respondents citing crime as the most serious public safety concern. Solutions to crime also included suggestions that laws be changed to be harsher on criminals and that government fund more police. Only three respondents specifically suggested that a solution to crime was public involvement and awareness.
Most commonly, tougher laws and longer sentences were suggested for drinking and driving problems. Other suggestions included more law enforcement related to drinking and driving and education and educational campaigns.
For problems with law enforcement services the suggested remedies included calls for more law enforcement officers, more funding for law enforcement, and more and better training for law enforcement officers.
Suggestions for how to deal with violence and violent crime, cited as the most serious public safety problem by five per cent, mirrored suggestions for other public safety concerns, with proposals for more law enforcement resources, and newer and tougher laws against violence, but respondents also believe that families and citizens need to become more involved and that education is also a solution.
Based on the information received from this survey, Alaskans have diverse opinions concerning both the nature of the problems facing their communities and the solutions to those problems. The data obtained seem to support community-by-community assessment and prioritizing of problems.
Future Forum articles will present additional findings from the longer study from which this article was taken.