Alaska needs to help its cities address mental health and addiction issues

By Zack Fields

Updated: 20 minutes ago Published: 20 minutes ago

Anchorage local government has taken critical steps to improve public safety in Anchorage, but the state needs to be a partner with our local leaders to address mental health and addiction as root causes. We no longer live in a world where it is enough to have a robust police force. Yes, supporting a strong police presence is necessary, but it is not sufficient. Anchorage also needs intervention to reduce addiction, as well as both inpatient and outpatient mental health treatment. The Anchorage Assembly has done everything it can to fight crime, but the governor’s vetoes of state programs mean that we haven’t been able to drive crime rates low enough. This year, the state should step up as a full partner in fighting crime.

Our police are on the front lines guaranteeing public safety, and I applaud the Anchorage Assembly for appropriating funds to build back our police department. Our streets are safer today as a result, and I would like to see the state restore Community Assistance funding, previously vetoed by Gov. Mike Dunleavy, so we can hire more police (it’s in the budget, as of now). Anchorage tax themselves to the cap, so we can’t expand our police force much more without the state being a partner.

Unfortunately, the opioid epidemic and epidemic of mental health disorders mean that our first responders spend more and more of their time responding to overdoses, people with mental health crises, and “low-level” property crimes by addicts looking to get their next fix. The Anchorage Assembly recognized these problems and established a Mobile Crisis Team to respond. This is a smart approach, because it ensures our police can stay on patrol and respond to crimes.

The Anchorage Assembly also overhauled policies aimed at clearing the dangerous encampments from which criminals operate chop shops, sell drugs, and raid nearby neighborhoods. Clearing these dangerous encampments has been a priority for local residents for a long time, and our local leaders deserve credit for doing everything they can to clear them, keeping parks and nearby neighborhoods safe. State funding does play a role: Under recent judicial decisions, the city can’t clear camps if there aren’t shelter beds available, so our role as legislators in funding homeless services is critical to ensure that the city can clear encampments.

Unfortunately, our local leaders just don’t have the budget or operational capacity to address behavioral health and mental health issues alone. Alaska Psychiatric Institute (API), a state facility, is grossly under capacity, and under the Dunleavy administration has been releasing violent and mentally unstable people back onto the streets of Anchorage. The administration needs to operate API at full capacity to protect Anchorage residents.

As a state, we also need to fund the behavioral health treatment that addresses root causes of addiction-related property crime and can prevent mental health disorders from spiraling out of control. Recognizing the importance of behavioral health treatment, the legislature has appropriated funds to strengthen behavioral health services. Unfortunately, Gov. Dunleavy has issued numerous vetoes of behavioral and mental health treatment over the last three budget cycles. These are state-funded programs that cannot be replaced or replicated by our local government. I hope we are successful in appropriating funds again this year, and that the governor doesn’t veto them.

In my relatively short life, I’ve seen a massive paradigm shift in public safety. Providing safe streets today requires a strong police presence, robust behavioral and mental health treatment, and adequate homeless shelter so the city can clear encampments. This is orders of magnitude more complex than a generation ago, and requires governments at all levels to collaborate. The Anchorage Assembly has done a great job, expanding law enforcement and crisis intervention, but we need to step up and provide the mental and behavioral health interventions that our local leaders can’t implement on their own.

Rep. Zack Fields represents Downtown Anchorage in the Alaska House of Representatives, and co-chairs the Labor and Commerce Committee.

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