Evanne Katasse-Roberts has had a front-row seat to Juneau’s drug epidemic.
At Thursday’s Public Safety Employees Association (PSEA) union’s town hall meeting at Centennial Hall, Katasse-Roberts recounted stories of her neighbors in Switzer Village selling drugs. Her family was so used to seeing drug activity next door that when they heard a knock on their window a few years ago, her 17-year-old son knew what it meant.
“His automatic response was, ‘If you’re looking for drugs, it’s next door. You’re at the wrong place,’” Katasse-Roberts said.
She was one of more than a dozen people who spoke at the meeting, which was organized by the union, which includes officers from the Juneau Police Department and the Alaska State Troopers. It was not an official JPD or Troopers event, but JPD Chief Ed Mercer was in the audience taking it all in.
More than 50 people showed up to listen to what the officers had to say and to listen to fellow Juneau residents vent their frustrations about crime in town. Among those in attendance were all three incoming members of Juneau’s legislative delegation — Representative-elects Sara Hannan and Andi Story and Senator-elect Jesse Kiehl. City Manager Rorie Watt and City and Borough of Juneau Human Resources and Risk Management Director Dallas Hargrave were also there.
The meeting began with presentations from JPD Sgt. Sterling Salisbury, the department’s president of the JPD chapter of the PSEA, and Trooper Shaun Kuzakin, the Southeastern vice president of the PSEA. In Salisbury’s presentation, he pointed out that the number of so-called Part 1 crimes — including burglaries, aggravated assaults, thefts, arson and more — have risen by 84 percent since 2014. This is according to the department’s annual Uniform Crime Reports over the years.
He also pointed to the fact that JPD’s staffing totals have remained stagnant during that time, and that the department currently is eight officers short of being fully staffed.
“The crime has risen, going on 100 percent, but yet, our police force is not increasing,” Salisbury said after the meeting. “We wanted to give some awareness to the public so that we can have their support when we meet with our elected officials to try and advocate for more positions.”
The CBJ Assembly has made public safety a focus in the past year, and voted last summer to fund two more police officer positions. This coming Monday, JPD will present statistics about crime and staffing issues to the CBJ Assembly Committee of the Whole. That meeting, at 6 p.m. Monday at City Hall, is open to the public.
One of the statistics included in JPD’s presentation to the Committee of the Whole is that the number of Part 1 crimes actually decreased through the first three quarters of 2018 (the most up-to-date stastics the department has available). The Part 1 crime rate was down 11 percent through the first three quarters of 2018, the presentation states.
Most of the members of the public who spoke were empathetic to officers being stretched thin. Katasse-Roberts said she just wants to know how to help. Multiple people suggested funding another drug dog in addition to Buddy, JPD’s K-9 dog. One man, a former addict, urged people to start young and make sure that young people feel more self-worth and don’t turn to drug use.
There was some mention of Senate Bill 91, a criminal justice reform bill that put in place alternatives to long prison terms to reduce the number of incarcerated people in the state. Many people point to SB 91 as an aggravating factor in the state’s rising crime rates. Kuzakin said PSEA will be spending time at the Capitol talking with legislators about what legislation can help them do their jobs.
A frustration that came up multiple times was that there are certain homes or areas that neighbors know are active drug areas, but it takes a long time for law enforcement to be able to shut them down. Salisbury said it’s usually a long, intensive process that involves CBJ attorneys and the court system to get a house condemned. Even more frustrating, he said, is that once a house is condemned or shut down, the problem isn’t over.
“The problem just moves around the town, so that’s one of the struggles that we face, is that people aren’t changing, they’re changing locations,” Salisbury said.
The most emotional testimony of the evening came from Susettna King. She said she’s done everything she can to report crimes and sometimes feels that she’s on her own. She told one story of when a neighbor broke into her house and it took the police two and a half hours to arrive after she called. There’s nothing worse than not feeling safe at home, she said.
King said she was happy that the officers were willing to start a dialogue with the community members. She said she wants to see better communication between members of the public, officers, city officials and state officials as everyone tries to figure out a solution to rising crime rates.
“It’ll take all of us to make that happen,” King said, “but to me today, it’s a start.”
• Contact reporter Alex McCarthy at 523-2271 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @akmccarthy.