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Alaskans turn to regular citizens for help with stolen vehicles

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  • Floyd Hall in Anchorage, Alaska, March 28, 2018. In his spare time, he recovers stolen cars in Anchorage, the state’s largest city, to the occasional annoyance of the police and the cheers of just about everybody else. “Anybody can do this — I’m not special,” he said. (Ruth Fremson/The New York Times)

ANCHORAGE, Alaska >> When bad stuff happens here in the nation’s wildest state, where the distances are vast and the population low, you can’t always count on government officials swooping in for a rescue. Tales of individuals’ gumption — trekking the tundra, fighting off bears, starting fires to stay warm — are as much a part of Alaska’s culture as the midnight sun or the North Star on the state flag.

Now, people like Floyd H. Hall are taking that get-it-done, go-it-alone way of life to the city streets, where crime has soared. Rather than waiting for the police or political leaders to slow the sudden wave of stealing, ordinary people are taking matters into their own hands.

Hall, 53, is a soft-spoken snow-removal worker with a slight paunch, a salt-and-pepper beard and a matched set of .45 caliber pistols. In his spare time, he recovers stolen cars in Anchorage, the state’s largest city, to the occasional annoyance of the police and the cheers of just about everybody else.

Along the way, he has been shot at by a car thief, cited for reckless driving in pursuit of a stolen car, and celebrated by fans who showed up to his court case wearing “Let Floyd Go” T-shirts. A lawyer has stepped forward to represent him for free as he fights the reckless driving charge.

“Anybody can do this — I’m not special,” said Hall, who spends four to six hours a day working with a network of spotters who track social media sites like Stolen Vehicles of Alaska, which have popped up as crime rates have climbed. When a hot car is identified by license plates or vehicle identification numbers, Hall and others on his team drive out, block the car from moving and call the Anchorage police.

By now, the dispatchers and officers — even the chief of police — know him simply as Floyd. By his own tally, he has found and helped return about 75 vehicles so far this year. The authorities in Anchorage say they have not tracked the number of people, like Floyd, who have taken on roles as self-appointed spotters, watchers, trackers or all-around crime fighters, but they are numerous. Frustration has fueled their energy, and social media has given them tools to coordinate efforts.

Alaska often zigs while the rest of the nation zags; its economy boomed through the nation’s recession a decade ago. Now property crimes have spiked in the Anchorage area, where a majority of Alaskans live, even as such offenses have been declining for the nation as a whole, federal figures show.

That is making way for people like John Staser, another civilian crime fighter in Anchorage. Staser, 60, is a fit-looking retired lieutenant colonel in the Army Corps of Engineers and the co-owner of two sporting goods stores that have been hit lately by increased shoplifting.

Not long ago, when Staser suspected someone had been stealing, he held the culprit with a Taser at a store’s front door until the police arrived. He said he once followed another man on foot for about 45 minutes, trying to talk to him about issues of “accountability for his actions,” even though the stolen goods, valued at about $1,500, had been dropped at the store’s door. Staser only ended his pursuit after the man desperately waved a $20 bill at a passing motorist, climbed into the car and raced off.

Staser said he knows that he might one day cross a line and put himself at risk. The culprits are almost all much younger than he is, for one thing.

“I’ve got to stop chasing these guys,” he said, shaking his head.

Anchorage, a city with nearly 300,000 residents, has long had its share of rough edges, including patterns of homelessness and transience, with people here for a while, then gone. In interviews around the city, people said they still felt safe walking around, day or night, but the need to lock doors — a new imperative here — has left them unsettled.

Anchorage set a record for homicides last year, with 35, though violent crimes overall were up only slightly, according to the FBI. Some other U.S. cities have far higher per capita rates of killings, but Alaskans say the uptick in property crime is still palpable.

The Anchorage Police Department says the number of auto thefts jumped by 52 percent in 2017 over the number the previous year. In the first two months of 2018, the numbers were up again — 27 percent over the same period last year. The city went from having the nation’s 47th-highest rate of auto theft per capita in 2015 to the sixth highest in 2016, according to the National Insurance Crime Bureau, an insurance industry-funded group.

Some people here attribute the rising crime to an increase in opioid addiction and an economic downturn. The state’s unemployment rate, 7.3 percent in February, was the highest in the nation, as the state’s oil industry has sputtered. The state Legislature also overhauled the criminal justice system in 2016, reducing penalties for some property crimes.

“There isn’t just one thing,” Justin Doll, the Anchorage police chief, said. Doll said that new hires have brought the department to its highest staffing ever, with 435 officers, giving him hope that the crime trend can change. Arrests for car theft have also increased, he said, adding: “To me that suggests we’re starting to have an impact.”

But car theft in Alaska is unique. Thieves swiping a car in the Lower 48 have options: Drive it to another state for resale or sell the parts for scrap. There are few getaways here. A 20-hour drive to the capital, Juneau, still leaves you inside state borders. And most communities — more than 85 percent — aren’t reachable by road at all.

So vehicles are stolen to commit other crimes, the police said, or to live in for a while, or simply as a quick lift. It also means that most stolen cars are eventually recovered and returned — if worse for wear.

“I’ve seen cars stolen, abandoned, then stolen again by somebody else,” Hall, the stolen-car chaser, said.

Car thefts have surged in winter, when people start their cars and leave them warming, keys in plain view. That prompted Tracy Lohman and her husband, Tom, to buy a car with a remote that starts their vehicle from inside the house.

Karen Stephens, an architect, said everybody knows somebody who has been a victim.

“I used to leave my house, my car, everything, open all the time — all the time,” she said.

Some residents said they believed that an assumption that most Alaskans are armed — an idea borne out by studies — may be keeping crime from getting worse.

“Everyone’s got a gun inside their house, you know, so not too many people are concerned about home invasion,” said Blake Quackenbush, a lawyer.

Doll said he supports citizen activism like neighborhood watches, but said he worries that more aggressive tactics could drift toward vigilante justice.

“Nobody is doing this with anything other than good intentions in trying to help keep the community safe, but it’s really dangerous,” Doll said.

“What I would encourage Floyd or anybody to do is to continue to be active, be a voice for public safety,” he said. “But when crime actually happens, let us deal with it.”

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