ANCHORAGE - Anchorage police are counting more gangs on city streets, but there's debate over whether the increase is as sharp as it appears.
A recent tally identified more than 125 suspected gangs, an increase of 13 from a December count. The count documented 354 validated gang members and about 2,400 suspected associates, up from 1,000 total in December.
"We're just having a tremendous growth in gangs right now," Scott Lofthouse, the police gang intelligence officer, told the Anchorage Daily News. "The violent crime itself has gone down, way down. But what we're finding is that a larger percentage of the violent crime is being done by gang members."
A recent homicide victim, a 19-year-old man gunned down while sitting in an idling pickup, was a Rollin 60s Crip from Las Vegas until he moved to Anchorage and joined the 51-50 Crips, police said.
However, Police chief Rob Heun and Lt. Dave Parker said the surge may not be a surge at all. Rather, they believe police are doing a better job of counting. Several officers are now devoted to gathering intelligence on gangs.
"That's why you'll see enhancements in the numbers of validated gang members or gang suspects," Heun said. "We've developed a very good information-gathering system."
Whether real or not, the increase has authorities trying to prevent youths from joining gangs in the first place. There are nearly 20 police officers positioned in city high schools, working to deter gang activity there.
Lofthouse contends that many of the new gang members have arrived from the Lower 48 - some to escape trouble in their hometowns, others because of the recession that has people moving to Alaska for jobs, the Permanent Fund check or both.
"They don't necessarily maintain the alliance with their out-of-state gang, although some of them may," Lofthouse said. "Sometimes what they'll do is they'll assimilate into a local gang up here that has the same affiliations."