Police force beefs up ranks as city grapples with gangs

Published: Aug. 24, 2016 at 5:07 PM AKDT
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The former head of the Anchorage police department’s gang unit said it appears that the city is experiencing an upsurge in gang violence.

Scott Lofthouse, who retired from the Anchorage Police Department (APD) in May 2015, said the number of homicides, car thefts, burglaries, and other crimes indicates to him that gang activity is on the rise in the city. Lofthouse used to track gang violence on a special assignment unit of APD that no longer exists.

Although he no longer works for APD, Lofthouse said he’s heard and not surprised about the allegations made by a 15-year-old girl who was allegedly kidnapped by three men on Aug. 14. The girl was picked up in Mountain View and dropped off on Eklutna Lake Road with zip ties around her wrists and ankles, and a shirt stuffed down her mouth, fastened with zip tie around her head. The teen, who managed to free herself and was helped by a passerby, said her abductors asked her to tell them the where members of a gang called Fight Squad lived. The girl said she refused because one of her alleged abductors told her the men planned to “keep killing members of the Fight Squad until there were no more left.”

“Based on her statement it sounds like one group is hunting down another group,” said Lofthouse. “Obviously something happened between these two groups and they have become mortal enemies.”

Lofthouse said he learned about Fight Squad before he left the department but wasn’t able to gather intelligence on its members because his job changed and he was moved back to patrol.

The girl’s alleged kidnappers were arraigned in recent days. Serge Gaston Azede II, Williams Doug Burgess and Jean Olivier Vagao Jr. are each charged with kidnapping. Vagao also is accused of second-degree assault. Burgess faces counts of assault and sexual assault.

During his time with APD, Lofthouse said police identified almost 120 criminal gangs that operated over a 15-year period in Anchorage.

“The most I ever saw operating at the same time was between 25 and 30 gangs,” he said. That was in 2012 to 2013.

Anchorage's gangs tend to be racially diverse and hybrid versions of the infamous Bloods and Crips gangs in the Lower 48.

“They’re not as hardcore. They’re not as indoctrinated although they want to emulate that lifestyle,” he said. “They use the names Bloods and Crips because it’s immediate recognition and credibility. They get respect through fear.”

After a news conference about police recruitment on Wednesday, Anchorage Police Chief Chris Tolley acknowledged that gangs are a problem in the city. But he said they are not nearly as powerful or organized as they are in the Lower 48.

“Yes there is some signs of gang activity but not the strong coalition and groups and street activity that you see in other cities,” Tolley said.

“Gangs in Anchorage are not what you would typically see in a city where they take ownership of a block or a neighborhood or a section of the city, and they sort of have territorial rights and rights to certain criminal activities such as drug distribution in those neighborhood. We’re not seeing that. What we’re seeing is individuals who claim some affiliation with gangs and so on and that, typically because of who they’re trading with out of town, is affiliated with a gang,” the chief said.

In her comments to police, the 15-year-old who was abducted earlier this month said one of her kidnappers told her they were responsible for three recent homicides.

APD has said her allegation has neither been proven or disproven at this time.

As far as combatting Anchorage gang problems, Tolley said he expects more resources will be directed toward that efforts with new police officers joining the force. A police academy that started in June has 29 recruits who are due to graduate in December. Another group of new officers who graduated from the academy this spring are finishing up their field training and should be on the street within the next month or so, Tolley said.

The police force is on track to meet its goal of having 400 officers on staff by the end of the year or in early 2017.

Gerard Asselin, an APD sergeant and president of the Anchorage Police Department Employees Association, said he's encouraged by that the department is recruiting new officers to the force.

"We're on an updward trend," said Asselin. "But it takes awhile to rebuild."

Anchorage has experienced 23 homicides so far in 2016. Last year the city had 25 homicides total.

Car thefts are also about double what they were during the same period last year, Tolley said recently.