According to data from the Anchorage Police Department, that year 3,122 vehicles were stolen. For a city with around 294,000 people, that is slightly more than one stolen vehicle for every hundred residents. And early in 2018, the trend was still moving upward: January that year saw 390 stolen vehicles, more than any other single month in figures going back to 2014.
But in the following months, the pace drastically changed.
“By December, that number had dropped by almost 60 percent,” said Deputy Chief Ken McCoy during a Tuesday morning press conference on the data.
In addition to a months-long decline in thefts, the number of arrests made in connection to stolen vehicles increased more than three-fold in five years, from 171 in 2014 to 537 in 2018.
“The big question is: why?” McCoy posed to a small group of reporters.
Officials say the turnaround in crime numbers is largely due to two factors: An expanded police force and greater collaboration among law enforcement agencies. Making good on a campaign promise, Mayor Ethan Berkowitz’s administration began aggressively recruiting and hiring police when it came into office in 2015. Now, with more than 430 sworn officers, there are more police out on patrols, and a larger force of detectives to build cases.
“When patrol is able to arrest folks in stolen vehicles, they bring them in. Detectives are able to do some interviewing,” Lieutenant Jared Tuia said. The expanded capacity allows detectives to connect small arrests with larger investigations, he continued.
APD is also collaborating more closely with state and federal law enforcement. For example, the U.S. Attorney’s office in Anchorage, which has increasingly used federal laws to charge repeat offenders in cases where there are gaps in state or local statutes.
Police say that generally vehicle theft is a crime of opportunity. Cars and trucks tend to be stolen more frequently during the winter months when they are left idling in the cold, when doors are left unlocked or keys remain in the ignition. According to APD’s data, the vast majority of vehicles that are taken are eventually recovered after being used for transport, as shelter, or to commit other crimes.
As for why the number of vehicles stolen surged in the first place, tripling in just four years, Tuia and others in law enforcement are blunt that it is related to criminals seeking drugs.
“To get cross town, to go and either buy some more drugs or to commit other crimes,” Tuia said. “A lot of the time they sell the vehicles among other users.”
State officials say they are helping as they can, but according to Anchorage District Attorney John Novak, with finite resources, the office’s priorities are preventing homicides, sexual assault and sexual abuse of minors.
Asked about the role in state laws, APD Captain Sean Case declined to connect the drop in car thefts to Senate Bill 91, the state’s contentious omnibus criminal reform bill, pointing out that local crime rates were ticking upwards before the bill passed.
In spite of the recent declines, police say there is still more work to be done.