Mountain View: The Context for Community Policing

Mountain View: The Context for Community Policing

Antonia Moras

"Mountain View: The Context for Community Policing" by Antonia Moras. Alaska Justice Forum 14(2): 1, 4-8 (Summer 1997). Like many other police departments, the Anchorage Police Department (APD) is moving from an emphasis on traditional law enforcement practices toward community-oriented policing, an approach that relies on officer-initiated efforts to reduce crime and public disorder. This article provides background an an overview of the context in which Anchorage Police Department has attempted to implement community policing in the Mountain View neighborhood of north Anchorage.

In discussions of policing—whether among police officers, politicians or theoreticians, in the general media or in academic or professional journals—the term community policing is being used to designate a possible approach to police work in this country—an approach which is more or less desirable, more or less feasible, and more or less precisely envisioned according to the perspective of those involved in the discussions. Used as a referent for shaping government policy, the term has led to the channeling of federal funds to law enforcement agencies throughout the country. The phrase refers to certain theories regarding the nature of effective law enforcement and various practices derived from such theories. Around it has blossomed an abundant literature describing, analyzing and evaluating its various manifestations. Ideas attached to the term community policing and the government funds now devoted to its implementation are precipitating changes in the practices and organization of many law enforcement agencies; among them is the Anchorage Police Department (APD). This article, which is based on interviews conducted by the Justice Center and information from project documents and other sources, provides background and an overview of the context in which community policing has been attempted in the Mountain View neighborhood of north Anchorage. The accompanying article, "Community Policing: Perspectives from the Field," summarizes the results of interviews with APD officers assigned to the project.

The need to find resources during a period when municipal funding had been frozen propelled APD to apply for funding for the Mountain View project. The proposal to the U.S. Department of Justice was first drafted in 1993 but the grant was not definitely awarded until 1995. The Community Action Policing Team (CAP) project opened in the Mountain View neighborhood in fall 1995.

The program has been put in place in the part of Mountain View bounded by the Glenn Highway, Davis Park, McPhee Avenue, and Meyer Street. This area corresponds roughly to U.S. Census Tract 6 for Anchorage (Figure 1). (Census Tract 6 also includes the area east of the Mountain View project, between Post Road and Fifth Avenue.)

The Mountain View neighborhood is poorer than other areas of Anchorage. According to 1990 Census data, the mean household income for the census tract, $20,488, was the lowest among Anchorage census areas, and the area also had the highest number of households on public assistance. Most residents of Mountain View—82 per cent—rent rather than own their residences, while in Anchorage as a whole only 47 per cent of residents live in rental units. The median value in 1990 for an owner-occupied housing unit in Mountain View was $58,700, while for the city it was $109,700. In 1990 the area contained more vacant housing units and more boarded-up units than any other census tract in Anchorage.

A drive in the area reveals that many of the buildings, particularly the apartment buildings, are cheaply constructed and poorly maintained; however, interspersed with the rundown buildings are numerous well-maintained homes, many with established gardens. According to census data, housing units—whether apartments or houses—are small: 71 per cent have four rooms or less. In contrast, only 41 per cent of the dwellings in Anchorage as a whole have so few rooms.

It is a common police view that the prevalence of inexpensive rental housing in Mountain View and the transience of residents make some crimes more feasible and more frequent.

The area population is younger than that of the city in general: 64 per cent are under 30, with 31 per cent younger than 18; 50 per cent of the general Anchorage population are under 30 and 29 per cent under 18.

The racial and ethnic identity of the neighborhood is also much more diverse. In Anchorage as a whole 81 per cent of the population is white, while in Mountain View 53 per cent of the population is white; 13 per cent, black; 25 per cent, Native American; 5 per cent, Asian or Pacific Islander; and 4 per cent of another racial origin.

The Mountain View neighborhood also presents a linguistic mix not encountered as much elsewhere in Anchorage. On signs for businesses and on bulletin boards in churches and public meeting places information is often presented in several different languages. According to information assembled by the Anchorage School District, students at William Tyson and Mountain View Elementary, the two elementary schools located in the area, come from homes where the following languages are spoken: Samoan, Tongan, Hawaiian, Polish, Spanish, French, German, Creole, Tagalog, Indonesian, Tamil, Laotian, Khmer, Hmong, Yup'ik, Tlingit, Cupik, Inupiat, and English.

The neighborhood covered by the CAP program is primarily a residential area, with businesses along the southern edge: restaurants, pawn shops, liquor stores, a plumbing store, a clothing store, and facilities for check cashing and long distance phone calls. No banks, medical or dental practices are located in the neighborhood, although a health clinic organized by the Concerned Citizens of Mountain View and the Anchorage Latino Lions opened in March 1997 in the Mountain View Resource Center.

The neighborhood is served by two People Mover bus routes: one makes a circuit along Mountain View, Lane, Parsons and Bragaw and then continues downtown, past the former Alaska Native Medical Center; the other goes along Mountain View and connects with the Glenn Highway. The bus lines are an important means of transportation in the area because many residents lack private vehicles.

In addition to Mountain View and William Tyson Elementary Schools, Clark Middle School and Bartlett High School also serve the area. The Mountain View branch of the public library is in Clark Middle School.

The neighborhood contains a number of churches of different denominations and a community recreational center on North Price. Parks of different sizes dot the area. They are well maintained, with swings and other play equipment, benches and waste receptacles, but they have also been common sites for drug dealing. The Anchorage Police Department chose to establish its Mountain View substation across opposite Duldida Park, at the corner of Hoyt and Thompson.

According to the Anchorage Police Department, the substation—a small wood frame cottage, painted a bright, startling blue—was formerly a crack house which had been forfeited in a drug operation. The Anchorage Police Department obtained the building from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and made the necessary repairs and security changes to convert it to a police substation. Corner street signs in blue with the word Police have been placed above the ordinary green street signs which mark the intersection of Hoyt and Thompson. Since October 1995 the substation has been the geographic focal point of the community policing project. A number of blue and white Anchorage police cars are usually parked in the street in front of the substation.

Policing in the Community

Before the development of the community policing program, north Mountain View was part of a broader APD service area patrolled by cars on a shift schedule. In general, one or two patrol officers per shift worked in the service area containing Mountain View. For a number of years the police department and the media have described Mountain View as a high crime neighborhood, mentioning the prevalence of open street drug dealing and prostitution and the high number of calls for service received by APD. In particular, police officers and community activists refer to summer 1995, just before the CAP program began, as a time of exceptional disruption, with the sound of gun shots on the streets regularly reported.

The project received $1.5 million for three years from the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services in the U.S. Department of Justice. The money has been used primarily to fund the fifteen officer positions assigned to the project. In addition, the services of the ordinary car-based patrol unit for APD Service Area 4, which contains the project neighborhood, and those of other APD divisions such as the detective unit and technical services are available. The level of staffing for the community policing project area is close to three times the ordinary level placed in a much larger service area.

The funding proposal described a policing plan which would entail a "shift to prevention strategies, with emphasis on public interaction and officer problem solving at the street level," and it outlined a plan which would encourage health and social service agencies to place personnel in the police substation to coordinate efforts more clearly and to serve neighborhood residents more readily .

A later document entitled "Neighborhood Policing Operation Plan," describes the mission, goals and specific responsibilities of members of the Community Action Policing Team. This plan was assembled by the lieutenant and sergeant originally assigned to the project. It mixes the contents of the funding proposal submitted to the U.S. Department of Justice with additional ideas on community policing obtained from other programs throughout the country. The components of the plan emphasize establishing a visible police presence. Officers are required to patrol their assigned blocks on foot or by bike on a daily basis and to park their marked police vehicles in strategic locations. They are encouraged to " improve coordination between neighborhood officers, the community, Neighborhood Crime Prevention staff and other service providers;" to "link citizens with the correct service provider to solve neighborhood problems;" and to "assist neighborhood residents in having a voice in the application of government services." The plan describes general responsibilities for both individual officers and supervisory officers. It also states that the involvement of community residents in policing efforts is necessary to achieve a long term effect on neighborhood problems. The plan includes a list of neighborhood resident responsibilities which are, in fact, ideas and suggestions.

The ideas presented in the grant proposal and the planning document are all drawn from the common stock of ideas surrounding the term community policing, but they are phrased in non-specific ways. The problem faced by the officers assigned to Mountain View—none of whom had any experience with community policing at the time of the initial assignment—was how to translate the ideas into activities suited to the nature of that particular neighborhood. The document itself was pulled together during the beginning months of the project, when officers had already been assigned to the area. While none had any extensive background in community policing and few had any formal training in its theory or practice, many report having been intrigued by the possibilities, with some reflecting that this approach at least in theory promised an approach to policing more in keeping with how they intuitively felt officers should work in a community. (See accompanying article, "Community Policing: Perspectives from the Field.")

Interviews revealed that the Mountain View team decided to concentrate initially on the drug problem which many officers perceived to underlie the deterioration in community life. The team coordinated surveillance, the use of search warrants, informants and sting operations in a heavy initial "clean-up" effort, and they involved landlords and municipal code enforcement personnel as they sought to eliminate the drug operations in various apartment buildings. Because of the heavy police presence other public irritants, such as street prostitution, became less common. Various officers sought to eliminate junked vehicles and graffiti and to put an end to jaywalking.

After the streets and parks of Mountain View became more orderly, the CAP team turned its attention to more routine law enforcement tasks — responding to dispatch calls; conducting bike and foot patrols; and enforcing traffic regulations. The team also began to develop other community-focused programs. Among the projects attempted by the team were a truancy program, which sought to enforce state school attendance regulations; a property identification project; bike rodeos for instructing children in safety and security; the establishment of regular neighborhood ethnic roundtables; and an extended and complex effort to reroute traffic in the neighborhood.

Interviews with officers assigned to the CAP team, both those still working in Mountain View and those who have left the project, reveal that designing and developing community-based projects, in accordance with theories of community policing, has required officers to switch from an approach to work which is almost completely reactive—responding to dispatch—to one which requires more creative initiative under a different type and degree of supervision.

The extended effort to put "jersey barriers" in place illustrates some of the complexities involved in community-policing activities. "Jersey barriers" are the concrete structures, sometimes designed as planters, erected to block access to a portion of a street and redirect traffic. The streets in Mountain View are broad for a residential neighborhood and laid out in a grid. Officers who have worked in the area report that the arrangement of the streets leads to speeding, with its associated dangers in a residential neighborhood, and to quick entrances and exits by those engaged in drug dealing from cars. Members of the CAP team envisioned that the placement of jersey barriers on certain streets would slow and reroute traffic and perhaps lessen illegal activity occurring from vehicles. The officer concentrating on the jersey barriers project worked with Mountain View residents and city officials in several offices over nine months to put the barriers in place, but as the plan for erecting the blocks became more widely known in the area, other voices began to raise objections, revealing complexities in the life of the community: in particular, the initial site chosen for placement was seen as impeding easy access to the Mountain View Resource Center, where the new health clinic was opening. Momentum on the project slowed after the municipality, responding to letters from other community groups, indicated that the Traffic Engineering Department would conduct a broad traffic study of the area late this summer. Some of the community policing team, many of whom had little experience in the slow, incremental work involved in projects such as this one, expressed frustration with their inability to effect this type of change easily. The idea has not died, however; and the city planning division is also applying for HUD Safe Neighborhood funds which would permit similar traffic flow changes.

The original APD grant proposal projected that various health and social service agencies might establish branch offices in the neighborhood near the substation. This idea too is common to community policing theories of how to serve neighborhoods more effectively. While individual officers on specific projects have broadened their contacts with various other government entities in order to help residents with particular problems, no effort by other city or state bureaucracies to establish actual offices has occurred.

Community Involvement

Underpinning the theory of community policing is a belief that the regular exchange of information between residents and law enforcement personnel is essential to effective policing. Reflecting this, the proposal for the Mountain View project promised the establishment of an community advisory board. As the project evolved, the actual push to form a board came initially from the APD officers involved. After a period, the mayor's office, drawing upon suggestions from the police, appointed an advisory board with eight members. Several of the board members live in the community and all have strong connections to the neighborhood, whether through schools, churches or private businesses.

The board began meeting on a regular basis in 1996. For several months it worked to define its mission, draft its bylaws and decide how best to guide the project. Beginning in early 1997 it began to provide more direction to the police. However, the authority and accountability of the board have never been clearly defined, and to this point, it has functioned primarily in a facilitative mode. It has no budget for its work; it has no direct authority over the officers involved in the project or their assignments, and it does not have a regular liaison with the mayor's office. Since its formation, contacts with the mayor's office have been initiated by letters from the board. The group has made a number of recommendations and suggestions to the APD community policing team, and it continues to assemble information on community policing from outside sources. In its efforts to facilitate the work of the police the board has assisted in obtaining equipment for the substation and has arranged meeting space for the police team

The board meets at least once a month. Several members attend regularly while others are more sporadic in attendance or usually absent. It is general practice for a member of the CAP team to present a report on project activities at the board meetings, although on a number of occasions no representative from the police team has attended the meeting.

Board meetings, which are sometimes attended by other interested parties from the community, have provided a forum for discussion of community problems and their relationship to the policing project. For example, in April 1997 a representative from the Alaska Department of Health and Human Services was invited to speak to the group on the upcoming extensive changes in the federal and state welfare systems. The information precipitated a discussion on the possible effects of the welfare cuts on the Mountain View community and the implications for policing.

In early summer 1997 the board stated its intention to recommend that the Mountain View project be extended beyond the initial three-year period. It has also recommended that the substation be moved to a larger building somewhere closer to the entrance to the neighborhood, on Mountain View Drive. The board suggested the building formerly occupied by Tommy's Grocery, but before any action could be taken on this suggestion a pawn shop opened at the site.

Both the CAP team and the advisory board consider the current substation to be much too small to serve the needs of the officers working in Mountain View. Various alternatives to the current building are now being explored, although at least some officers would like to see the little building also continue to be used because its visibility in the heart of the neighborhood is now associated with a sense of police presence.

Table 1. Anchorage Police Department Calls for Service, North Mountain View (Police Service Area 4D), October 1994-September 1996

The progress and effects of the Mountain View community policing project are difficult to evaluate in a quantitative way, primarily because the data are very sparse. Data maintained by APD for the project area show that during the first year, from October 1, 1995 through September 30,1996, the total of calls for service increased slightly, by nearly 7 percent (Table 1). It is problematic and complicated to analyze the number of calls for service as a measurement of effectiveness for this project, since the increased access to police will make reporting of certain incidents more common, while at the same time the sheer presence of officers undoubtedly results in certain types of incidents occurring less often. However, the total of calls involving major violent crimes (homicide, sexual assaults, robberies, and assaults) declined by 16 per cent, and calls involving weapons offenses declined by 34 per cent. Other categories also show changes. (In the city as a whole, calendar year 1996 reflected a 5.5 per cent increase in calls for service over the 1995 figures; a 9 per cent decline in major violent crime calls; and a 25 per cent decline in calls involving weapons offenses. See Table 2.) These percentages, however, must be viewed with caution because they are derived from data from a relatively short period.

Table 2. Anchorage Police Department Calls for Service, Anchorage (Citywide), 1995 and 1996

A small preliminary community resident survey undertaken by the Justice Center in early 1997 revealed that residents were pleased with recent police performance (Table 3). More than two-thirds of those responding noted an improvement (Question 7) and 62 per cent rated overall performance as excellent or very good. Comparing 1996 to 1995, 81 per cent of respondents viewed police performance as better or much better.

The funding for the Mountain View project has enabled the police department to station an exceptionally high number of officers in the neighborhood—something which would be unlikely without the federal money. It seems this strong presence has had some success in reducing visible crime and disorder and has permitted department personnel to draw some aspects of community policing into their approach to the community. The extent to which these initial efforts can be continued in Mountain View—or tried in other Anchorage neighborhoods—without such a heavy commitment of personnel remains unclear.

Antonia Moras is the editor of the Alaska Justice Forum.

Table 3. Community Perceptions of Anchorage Police Department Performance in Mountain View, 1996