DUNBAR: Policies worth considering to strengthen community-police relations in Anchorage

Demonstrators gather in Anchorage for the peaceful "I Can't Breathe" rally on May 30, 2020. (Photo by Matt Buxton/TMS)

This originally appeared as a post on Assembly Member Forrest Dunbar’s Facebook page. An edited version is presented here. You can submit editorials for consideration to [email protected].

Many of us attended or followed the historic #ICantBreathe protest this past weekend in Anchorage. Similar protests are occurring around the nation in response to the murder of #GeorgeFloyd and long-standing issues of racial inequality and injustice.

Since the protest, many have reached out to me asking how this energy can be translated into long-lasting, effective policy. Unfortunately, we face something of a chicken-and-the-egg problem: to know which policy reforms are most needed we need broad, in-depth conversations in the community. At the same time, it is difficult to sustain those kinds of conversations without specific policies that individuals can point to or organize around (this challenge is compounded this summer by the COVID-19 pandemic).

With that in mind, please consider this a very preliminary set of policy proposals, to be augmented, improved, or even moved beyond by the community in the coming weeks and months. These came out of initial conversations with community members, which I know my colleagues on the Assembly and in the Administration are also engaged in:

1. Reform and re-invigorate the Anchorage Police Community Relations Task Force. This task force is a crucial forum where the exact kind of conversations we need should be happening. Unfortunately, due in part to a lack of resources and some conflicts on the Task Force itself, it has not recently been as effective as it might be. Right now it is an entity that largely exists outside of government, and perhaps it should stay that way, but regardless, we need to have a public discussion about how to bring it back to the forefront.

2. Pass evidence-based policing reforms. There are a number of national organizations doing work to reduce officer-involved shootings and promote racial justice within police forces. Several organizations offer “menus” of reforms, or toolkits, like this one compiled by a group chaired by President Barack Obama: https://www.obama.org/wp-content/uploads/Toolkit.pdf

Which of these reforms is most needed in Anchorage is a conversation that will have to be done in concert between community activists and subject matter experts. Some of these policies are already in code or, more often, have been adopted by the Anchorage Police Department as administrative policy. As was the case in our debate around the use of drones by the police force, it is my preference that as many of these reforms as practical be embedded in Municipal Code, as opposed to internal policy, as the code is both more durable and more accountable to the public.

3. Direct new sources of funding to equitable programs. As a number of my colleagues have stressed, we need to keep equity in mind when making decisions on where and how to spend Municipal funds—our budget is a reflection of our values. There are two major pots of money outside of the normal budget process that will be discussed this summer: first, money from the Federal CARES Act, about $156 million of which will be coming to the Municipality. While we are somewhat limited in how we can spend these funds, we do have flexibility to direct them to programs like childcare and rental assistance. Conversations regarding the use of this funding are ongoing at the Assembly, and I hope the community continues to be involved in those discussions.

The second pot of money, which is initially smaller, but unlike the CARES Act is permanent, is from our newly enacted alcohol tax, which will go into effect in February of 2021. This funding is also limited in where it can be spent, but there are clearly some areas that would have a great impact on social equity: treatment, early childhood prevention, and housing for Alaskans experiencing homelessness chief among them. Many of my colleagues share this vision for the distribution of these funds, but the community will need to make their voice heard if that is where they want those revenues spent.

This conversation surfaced at the Assembly Public Safety Committee Hearing on June 3rd, where Members pointed out that issues of injustice cannot be resolved quickly and furthermore cannot be laid entirely at the feet of the APD. I wholeheartedly agree.

I anticipate several other counterarguments to the proposals laid out above: first, as previously acknowledged, that this might be “premature.” The proper order of events should be 1) community discussion 2) proposals by community leaders 3) adoption by elected officials. Ideally, that is how much policy proposals should arise, and many of those conversations are indeed ongoing. At the same time, it is sometimes incumbent on elected leaders to propose a policy agenda, especially in times of urgent outcry, which can serve as a starting point.

Second, some believe that the situation on the ground— where the Anchorage Police Department has taken significant steps to improve relations with the community—does not warrant a policy agenda of this type. Whether or not the APD has a relationship as positive or as close as we would like is a matter of fierce debate in some parts of the community. There are statistics that suggest that Alaska as a whole is a dangerous place to be Alaska Native, black, or more broadly a person of color vis-à-vis officer involved shootings. On the other hand, in recent years APD has adopted recruitment, discipline, and training practices that appear to have made significant progress. But regardless of which side of this question you fall on, I hope we can acknowledge that we can always do better. The Chief of Police has repeatedly stressed that point. And if you believe that the APD currently has a strong relationship with historically disenfranchised communities, why not take this opportunity, before there is a crisis, to make improvements?

Finally, I am sure there are substantive counterarguments to these proposals: that they go too far… or that they do not go far enough. That is fine and healthy. As I’ve stated, this is a preliminary proposal, just setting some stakes in the ground. I do not have my heart set on any of these proposals as the correct way to make change; but I do have my heart set on change.

We know that true change can only be done together and that it takes deep, deliberative, community-driven work. The Assembly clearly has a role to play, but it will be Anchorage as a whole—our resilient, diverse, hopeful community—that will make change that lasts.

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