Editor's note: This story has been updated to correct a spelling error.
Tired of being repeatedly victimized by break-ins and burglaries, those who live outside city limits on the Kenai Peninsula are taking matters into their own hands.
Crime watch groups are being formed and revitalized in the unincorporated communities of Nikiski and Sterling, and are generating conversation about how far neighbors in rural Alaska can go to protect each other and themselves from the property crimes that pervade their communities.
The Sterling Brotherhood, a long-standing crime watch group in Sterling made up of homesteaders, and the up and coming Deacons for Defense group in Nikiski — spearheaded by one of the founders of the Alaska Citizens Militia — are gaining support in response to thefts and other related crimes in both communities. Residents who don’t get the same level of protective services enjoyed by those in incorporated cities, are struggling with how to reduce the number of property crimes they experience while remaining within the confines of Alaska law.
Alaska State Troopers have agreed with residents in rural areas on the Kenai Peninsula, that the burglaries and thefts they experience are a product of drug abuse.
Removed from city borders, spread out and made up of winding back roads and seasonal homes, Nikiski and Sterling are more vulnerable to criminal activity than the more densely populated Kenai and Soldotna, both of which have their own municipal police departments.
“One thing I think we can probably, reasonably agree on is that property crimes and drug addiction go hand and hand,” said Lt. Dane Gilmore at a Sterling community meeting on Oct. 10.
Many people at community meetings held over the last few weeks in Nikiski and Sterling have been frustrated at the lack of timely responses from troopers to reports of burglaries or thefts.
Captain Andy Greenstreet is the commander of the E Detachment for the troopers, which covers the Kenai Peninsula. He and Gilmore blamed a lack of manpower due to budget cuts as the main factor preventing troopers from responding to every call they get quickly, or sometimes at all.
“As far as seeing troopers in your area, know that if you see a trooper in your area, there’s not a trooper in Sterling and there’s not one in Clam Gulch,” Greenstreet said at an informational meeting on Nikiski’s proposed Law Enforcement Service Area on Sept. 30.
Troopers from the post in Girdwood set to close on Jan. 1 will be re-routed to Soldotna, but it won’t be enough to alleviate the pressure of continued public safety cuts, said Sen. Peter Micciche (R-Soldotna).
For night patrols on the Kenai Peninsula, Gilmore said there are often only two troopers available at a time.
“We have roughly seven fewer troopers to do that job than we did two years ago,” he said. “That’s the reality.”
This lack of funding for public safety also affects the ability of troopers to tackle the root cause of property crimes on the peninsula: drug use.
The time and resources troopers have to tackle drugs are not usually channeled to addressing every suspected drug house residents try to make them aware of, Gilmore said.
“There’s very limited drug investigation resources in Alaska, and on the Kenai Peninsula... usually a staff of... two or three total for the Kenai Peninsula,” he said. “The scope of the problem is so much so that those folks generally tend to work on larger investigations with the idea of trying to intercept larger quantities of drugs.”
The Alaska Department of Public Safety often ends up getting cut because it is an easier target, Micciche said.
“Last session we were hit with a 60 percent cut in the price of oil and the legislature reacted,” Micciche said. “They cut where they could, and many of those cuts were very clumsy, and I would say some of the clumsiest were the cuts in public safety.”
When, faced with making cuts, the legislature turns to education or other areas in the budget, the public outcry is loud, Micciche said. Relatively few people raise objections to cuts in departments like public safety, he said.
“When it came to the cuts to the department of public safety…. we didn’t hear much,” Micciche said. “It’s sort of a latent result when people realize where those cuts result in less people able to respond to your home when you’re the victim of a crime.”
Micciche said one of the best things people can do prevent further cuts to public safety is to write emails and make calls to legislators advocating for the department.
What can be done
To supplement the thinly-stretched troopers, community watch programs, which have long been implemented on the peninsula, are gathering steam in a renewed push for information sharing and connection to one’s neighbor.
The Sterling Brotherhood has operated since its formation in 2008, when about 100 homesteaders and other residents came together to help out one of their neighbors, said Wayne “Froggy” Debnam. The Brotherhood is a network of residents who will respond to wherever they are needed in an emergency, Debnam said. All it takes is a phone call.
“We’re not vigilantes, we’re not a church group, we’re not any kind of a group, we’re just people, just guys in our community,” Debnam said.
At the community meeting on Oct. 10, Sterling resident Karri Klopp Davidson also introduced a new Facebook page called Sterling Neighborhood Watch she created specifically for tracking crime and keeping neighbors connected. She said it can be used to let others know about suspicious activity, or as a way to reach out for help in an emergency if troopers are unable to respond quickly.
Nikiski has on more than one occasion taken steps to try to reduce the number of property crimes its residents feel. In both this year’s regular election and in 2004, propositions were placed on the ballot that would have established a Law Enforcement Service Area. The measures failed both times, but several neighborhood watch groups have cropped up in its wake, the most recent being Deacons for Defense.
At an informational meeting for the group on Saturday, founder Ray Southwell said he is searching for 100 volunteers to participate in the organization. His focus on disrupting the flow of cash to drug dealers in the area involves patrolling suspected drug houses in the area in two-man teams to place pressure on recreational drug users, who he believes will have the greatest effect on a dealer’s profits.
Ideally, Southwell said recreational drug users would stop frequenting the houses patrolled by the Deacons, forcing the dealers to move elsewhere to find profits, taking the addicts — the ones he says are responsible for property crimes — with them.
“I look at drugs, the old drugs if you will, the cocaine and the heroin, like I think of alcohol,” Southwell said. “People use them recreationally... I don’t have a problem with recreational users, but they’re the ones that are funding the drug dealers, who are controlling the drug addicts.”
His plan drew criticism from some in attendance at the meeting, who said simply patrolling suspected drug locations will not be enough to discourage people from buying and selling. Others claimed that even if dealers were forced out of Nikiski, those who use drugs would simply leave to make purchases and come right back.
Nikiski resident James Mollet said he believed the Deacons for Defense would be more successful if the group was expanded into a more general community watch. If things like helping people when their power goes out and giving people lifts to the store were included, the watch program would see more support and participation, he said.
“If you broaden it a little bit, you get more people interested in the product, in doing something. It’s as simple as that,” Mollet said. “For Ray to be able to get this to fly, he has to encompass drawing in the people that are only willing to go out during the day, or only feel obligated if a neighbor lady has a tree that falls across her road and they volunteer to go get the tree off so she can go to the grocery store.”
Greg Russell is a law enforcement practices consultant and treasurer of Peninsula Crime Stoppers. He said neighborhood watch groups can be a way for residents to help troopers with information gathering when they can’t physically be there.
“If all you’re doing is calling it in and being a witness, the liability isn’t there,” Russell said. “You’re reporting something that’s going on that’s suspicious. Now, if you’re providing false information, that’s a separate crime.”
Getting educated on the laws that govern how a person can react to a crime is very important, especially if someone is contemplating taking action against a wrongdoer, Russell said.
“If you rely on statute and get your information from that, then you’re going to be safe,” Russell said. “The use of force is clearly outlined when it can be applied in state statute, and you can protect yourself.”
Aside from self defense and protecting one’s belongings, Russell said there are other smaller steps rural residents can take to keep from becoming victimized. Locking doors to homes and cars, installing security systems and keeping track of the serial numbers to valuable items are all part of what Russell calls “target hardening.” They will encourage those looking to commit property crimes to seek out easier targets, he said.
What can’t be done
Members of the Brotherhood sprang to action this summer to stop two men from stealing a boat motor from a riverfront property. Two brothers chased the would-be-thieves down the river until they abandoned the motor and escaped.
More recently, members of the Brotherhood helped troopers apprehend a man wanted for car theft he committed in Nikiski, among other charges. Two members of the Brotherhood chased down Brandon Bernier in mid-September and held him until troopers got there to make an arrest, Debnam said.
“When he ran across the road a couple of the brothers chased him down there, tackled him in the water, got the troopers attention,” Debnam said.
Russell said members of neighborhood watch groups need to be careful not to take the law into their own hands, which can lead to serious consequences.
“There is so much that community watch can do, but once they cross the line into where they either take the law into their own hands and maybe break the law, then they’ve gone too far,” Russell said. “When I was a cop, I’d get called to a business where the shoplifter was being held or detained. Essentially they had made a citizens arrest. The first thing that I had to do was to find out whether or not a crime had been committed, an arrestable crime. And if there had not been an arrestable crime, then you need to stop it.”
John Skidmore is the director of the criminal division of the Alaska Department of Law. He spoke to Nikiski residents at their Sept. 30 meeting when they asked just how far they could go when encountering a criminal.
“You’re not allowed to use deadly force to protect property unless it is your home,” Skidmore said. “If it’s your person, that’s self defense and that’s a completely different analysis.”
Generally, the law provides for the use of reasonable force when protecting property that is not in a person’s home, Skidmore said. The definition of what is reasonable is not hard and fast, but rather decided at a number of levels, from troopers to prosecutors, he said.
“It has to be evaluated on a case by case basis, and we have to look at what’s appropriate and what’s reasonable,” Skidmore said.
Debnam said he and other Brotherhood members do not advocate carrying a gun without knowing how to use one, nor does he condone fellow brothers go on patrols if they have been drinking. The Sterling Brotherhood plans to operate within the confines of law, he said.
“Now we know what tools we have to work with to do it within the law... security systems, Crime Stoppers, call the Alaska troopers,” Debnam said of the community meeting where Gilmore and Russell spoke.
The Sterling Brotherhood also created a map of the area which they invited people at the meeting to edit with black dots showing locations where theft or burglary crimes have happened. The map also contained 24 red dots that were meant to represent the locations of suspected drug houses in the community. All but two pictures containing the map have since been taken off the Sterling Neighborhood Watch page as residents said they were concerned that the map could be outdated. Russell also posted in the Facebook group that calling out individual property owners could be counterproductive to the group’s mission, especially if it could lead to false accusations.
At his informational meeting for Deacons for Defense, Southwell also emphasized his intentions to keep group activity within what is allowed by law.
Reach Megan Pacer at firstname.lastname@example.org