Fresh off the deadliest year in Alaska history, the 49th state’s largest city is continuing on a murderous pace that – if it continues – would rank Anchorage among the country’s top-20 most dangerous cities.
Between Dec. 1 and Jan. 31, 10 homicides – an average of better than one per week – were reported in the Municipality of Anchorage, according to the Anchorage Police Department. There is no way of knowing if this deadly trend will continue, but five homicides per month over the course of a year translates into 60 deaths.
In a community with a population just shy of 300,000, that many fatalities would establish a death rate of just over 20 per 100,000. Richmond, Va., now sits 19th on the list of dangerous U.S. cities with a rate of 19.5 per 100,000, according to “America’s 25 Murder Capitals” compiled by 24/7WallSt.com working with federal crime data.
Atlanta is just ahead of Richmond on the list with 20.2 deaths per 100,000 residents in 2016. Anchorage ended 2016 with a record 34 homicides, but the killing which started on a steep upswing in 2015 does not appear to have slowed.
Thirty-four homicides for 2016 translates into a rate of 11 per 100,000. The rate was about a third that only three years ago when Anchorage recorded but 12 homicides in 2014. Homicide rates in the city had been trending downward for 20 years, but they appear to have begun to turn.
Homicides more than doubled from 2o14 to 2015 when the number of deaths hit 26. Then came the 2016 jump, which marked the first time since the mid- to early-1990s that the death rate had gone over 10 per 100,000.
Assessing the danger
Anchorage is a very urban city in the corner of a borough that spans a vast wilderness bigger than the state of Rhode Island. It likes to promote tis “big wild life.” Firearms are part of the lifestyle. A lot of people hunt for the food they put on their tables. Others sometimes carry weapons to protect themselves from grizzly bears.
Shootings have always been a part of the landscape. For years, residents jokingly referred to the “Spenard divorce,” which involved an unhappy woman in that section of the city blowing hubby out the door with a shotgun. But the homicide rate was never that high by big-city standards.
Anchorage is now looking more and more like a big city.
There is no doubt it is more dangerous than it was in 2014, but the degree of danger might have a lot to do with the company one keeps. A detailed examination of Alaska murders from 1986 to 2015 undertaken by the Alaska Justice Statistical Analysis Center at the University of Alaska concluded that in almost 70 percent of cases the victim and the murder had some sort of relationship.
That does not appear to have changed. The latest city resident to be charged with homicide – 23-year-old Christopher Birotte – killed 19-year-old Tiwan Johnson Jr. According to police, Birotte and Johnson were friends of a sort.
Court documents say the two of them and a third man got into the fight over Birotte’s dope. Johnson and the as-yet-unidentified man ended up taking the dope and Birotte’s backpack. They then got in a car with a woman who drove off.
Birotte, KTVA.com reported, “fired shots into the car as it drove away, hitting both men in the back seat. When the driver realized Johnson was unresponsive, she drove to the hospital.”
Johnson died there.
Drugs appear to be involved in some number of local homicides in the last two months, but just how many is unclear.
“Some of our homicides have involved drugs,” APD spokeswoman Renee Oistad e-mailed. “(But) I am unable to give you an exact number as we sometimes do not discuss the motive of crimes prior to them going to trial.”
She said the department has no idea of why the jump in homicides.
“There is no trend or other particular reason we are attributing to the rise in homicides other than people are choosing to use violence to solve their problems,” she said.
No easy explanation
There is always the possibility the spike in murder rates is just an anomaly.
When dealing with small samples sizes, noted Brad Myrstol, the director of the Alaska Justice Center at the University of Alaska Anchorage, it doesn’t take much of an increase to radically move the needle on the graph.
“The numerical spike in homicides (last year) was certainly notable,” he said. “Certainly it’s on people’s minds. (But) I don’t have an easy answer for you” as to what it means.
Thirty-four homicides in 2016 spells a nightmarish year for Anchorage, but more people died in any three weeks in Chicago in 2016. The Windy City suffered 762 homicide deaths in 2016 or more than two per day.
President Donald Trump has called what is going on in Chicago “carnage” and threatened to send in federal forces. Most of the dead in Chicago are young, black men, and police say as much as 90 percent of the violence is tied to gangs.
So what is the problem?
Myrstol said he wishes he could put his finger on it.
“There are these macro things going on,” he said: Alaska is in its first serious recession in a generation; there is an opioid epidemic.
“There are a lot of things happening,” he said, “a lot of them are coming in the same time and space.”
But that doesn’t always mean they mean anything. Economic tough times have been tied to increases in crime in a variety of studies, but other studies have questioned that conclusion. When the U.S. economy tanked in 2008, the national crime rate went down.
Alaska crime did spike in the 1980s when oil prices collapsed and Anchorage, in particular, suffered through a serious recession, Myrstol noted, but the recession of the moment is nowhere near as bad as that of that of 30 years ago, and yet the homicide rate is far worse.
“We’re trying to provide the empirical information to provide some context,” Myrstol said, but the problem with data is that it can only follow. It can’t lead.
“Unfortunately,” he said, “we won’t know until we know” (if we ever know), and by then it will be too late to do anything.
For the time being, the best idea might be to choose your friends carefully.