The issue of people who have been committing disturbances and alleged crimes in the parking lot located at Edmonds and Grant streets was a topic of discussion at the Ketchikan City Council in its regular meeting Thursday.
Council members questioned Ketchikan Police Department’s Acting Deputy Chief Andy Berntson about how order and safety could be improved in that location, and about whether patrols could be increased.
Ideas such as installing surveillance cameras at the lot, adding “No Camping” signs and increasing lighting also were discussed.
Acting Ketchikan City Manager Lacey Simpson said that staff would investigate the costs and viability of those ideas.
Simpson and Berntson explained the finer points and challenges of the situation to the council, in answer to council member questions.
Simpson said that signs certainly could be installed in the area, but that “the issue becomes having probable cause for arresting someone — actually having the witness.”
A crime must be witnessed by a citizen or police officer, she said, which can be difficult.
Council members Riley Gass and Janalee Gage suggested that possibly the officers could increase patrols in the area to discourage bad behavior.
Gage also shared concerns that community members had brought to her about seeing police cars parked while officers talked to each other, with the community members expressing concern that the officers were simply passing time when they could instead be patrolling.
Berntson explained that often officers will gather in such a way to speak in person about confidential matters that would be inappropriate to discuss over a cell phone or radio, so those gatherings are important in allowing the officers to work on cases.
He also said that the KPD force is short-staffed by eight officers — three due to hiring freezes instated in the last budget cycle, one due to attendance at academy, and the others out because of leave due to injuries and personnel issues.
The normal KPD staffing would be up to 26 officers, he said.
Berntson added that, however, “we have been targeting that (parking) area,” he said. “We are doing our best, and we will continue to do it.”
Berntson also noted that what the police need community members to do to effectively assist law enforcement with improving the situation at the parking lot area.
“We need the information real time,” he said of receiving reports of criminal activity. “It doesn’t do good anecdotally the next day — we need it real time to be able to affect something.”
In answer to a concern that Gage expressed about a mention of “citizen’s arrest” in a memo attached to the agenda written by Acting KPD Chief Eric Mattson, Berntson explained what that means, according to the Alaska statute quoted by Mattson.
“It’s generally a different form of a statement, whereas we can utilize that process by them keeping a subject in sight and it still fits within the law that allows us to arrest a misdemeanor that occurs outside of our presence,” Berntson explained. He emphasized that at no time is a citizen expected to actually approach a person committing the crime.
Simpson added to Berntson’s statement about needing people to contact the department as soon as they witness bad behavior.
“The best thing that I think for folks that are in that area that have concerns is, to call dispatch when they see the concern,” she said. “That’s not happening, so we hear about these things second-hand and it’s too late. It’s too late, and the cycle continues.”
She added that the officers, barring any larger emergency, will certainly respond to the area when people report concerning activities.
“There’s no hesitation,” she said.
Berntson said, “Dealing with these people is nothing we avoid. It is actually one of the core missions of our department.”
He added that his department is “fairly well versed in handling social issues” such as addiction and homelessness.
He said that what officers do — although the idea might sound strange — is essentially teach those community members how to live in ways that do not cause disturbances or problems.
Berntson also addressed his view of how useful “No Camping” signs might be in deterring people from living in the parking lot, as a violation only is punishable by a parking ticket. He suggested possibly crafting a law describing camping in clear terms with consequences of violation attached as something to consider.
“Most of these quality of life crimes have zero or very little bail attached to them,” he said, so in taking them to jail, “you’re displacing them for sometimes 45 minutes.”
He also mentioned how important the Overnight Warming Shelter is in having a safe place to bring people that can also be a deterrent to bad behavior.
“Warming shelters are game changers for us,” he told the council, adding that they also save the community large amounts of money that is otherwise spent on police, fire and hospital resources.
The Daily News anticipates further coverage of Thursday's City Council meeting, which was continuing as of presstime Thursday evening. In addition, technical difficulties resulted in no sound being available during the first hour and 15 minutes of the city's online livestream of the meeting.