Deconstructing Alaska: Nixle
Deconstructing Alaska: Nixle
By Cody Liska
Photo / Sage O'Neill
In the months to follow, Crude will be releasing “Deconstructing Alaska,” an interview series aimed at promoting the transparency of Alaska institutions. We will explore past, present and potential future policies of a given institution through the perspectives of the professionals currently working in that field.
It is not our intention to belittle these institutions, but rather to encourage public discourse and critical thinking so that we, as Alaskans, can move toward a more symbiotic relationship. Because the better we understand each other, the better we can work together.
The Anchorage Police Department scanner first went dark in January 2016. It was made permanent in August of that same year. The justification being the scanner was a potential threat to officer and victim privacy, that anyone could tune into the broadcast—bad guys included—and use the information for nefarious purposes. It’s been over a year since that decision was made, Anchorage is in the middle of yet another historically violent year, and APD is still in charge of what information they release to journalists and the public.
“There certainly are a lot of shootings, robberies, thefts and assaults that happen on a weekly basis and they don’t feel the need to Nixle those,” says Jerzy Shedlock, Alaska journalist and former evening news reporter for Alaska Dispatch News. “But they could always reason that that’s because they don’t want the investigations to be thwarted. They could always make that excuse.”
APD treats Nixle alerts like press releases and, in turn, local news does the same. Left with the decision to either report on a crime with information from those Nixles or not at all, local news generally chooses the former. What this means is that our local crime news cycle—what is reported on and what is ignored—is largely selected by APD. The implications of this are concerning because Nixle alerts influence the way we think about and react to crime in the Anchorage community. (According to APD Public Information Officer MJ Thim, APD’s Nixle alerts have over 45,000 subscribers, 5,000 of which subscribed in the last three months.)
Like many people in this city, I have questions: Is it okay for law enforcement to usurp the job of a journalist? Should the people of Anchorage be concerned? Is this how a police state starts? Or is this train of thought just melodramatic and APD is doing the best they can with limited resources? I don’t know the answers to those questions. I do, however, believe that this is a reasonable thought: How do you curb negative perception of an institution? You take control of its narrative, decrease your transparency and become your own storytellers.
To get a better understanding of all this, I reached out to Casey Grove, a lifelong Alaskan and professional journalist for more than a decade. He was the main crime reporter for the Anchorage Daily News from 2010 to 2014, a period of time during which the APD made drastic changes to its public information dissemination. He’s currently a general assignment reporter for Alaska Public Media and, although his stories are more wide-ranging than his previous work with the Daily News, he still covers crime and public safety issues on occasion.
This is what I learned.
What was it like before APD started using Nixle?
I remember being at Channel 2 and I was in on one of these meetings where the former Public Information Officer (PIO) for APD was handing the position off to the next guy. Paul Honeman, who was on the Anchorage Assembly and ran for mayor, was a cop for a long time and then he was the PIO for APD—he was the guy who showed up in the middle of the night at the crime scene—and he was handing the PIO position off to this guy Dave Parker, and they both came in and Paul introduced Dave to the newsroom, and we got his phone number and that’s the guy we’d call when shit went down. That was the old-school way of doing it—you had a cop who could talk to the journalists that showed up at an event, whatever it is, a shooting or whatever.
The PIO is not a sworn officer anymore. You went from having a guy that the actual police officers trusted because he was one of their own to this spokesperson who’s coming out of the journalism realm… and you started seeing way more Nixles coming out, but not a lot more information coming out. APD relies on those Nixle messages and they’ve cut out the premium access that a newspaper or a TV station used to get because they can speak directly to the public now with these Nixles.
I started looking into Nixle because I have Nixle and it’s not unusual to not get an alert for a couple of days and then all of a sudden you get one about a missing person. One minute APD is like, “this person is lost,” and then like an hour later it’s, “we found them.” And it’s great to know that those people are being found, but when that’s a lot of the information APD chooses to put out there, what they’re doing is creating their own channel of positive news, putting them in charge of their own narrative.
APD is real smart about it because they understand that if they subvert the old process, then it’s disruption. They’re trying to disrupt the actual journalists who ask those tough questions and get to the bottom of why there are gunshots in your neighborhood, and they know that if they just put more positive stories into that stream of information, then people who live in nice neighborhoods and don’t spend a lot of time out in the streets and don’t live around the gunshots or talk to people about how the cops didn’t show up when their house was burglarized, those people will see that Nixle and think, “oh, good, the police are taking care of it.”
APD will never really come out and say it, but basically what they say is, “why don’t [journalists] cover more of the good things that we’re doing?” And my response is always, “we covered the positive things you’re doing when we reported on you arresting someone and sending them to jail, and that’s your job and the rest of our reporting is holding you accountable.” And it’s really hard to hold people accountable, or even show the public that you’re holding them accountable, when they’re not releasing as much information because they’re relying on these new technologies to avoid that.
Do you know if any other American cities use Nixle the way APD does?
Tons of cities use Nixle. Probably the difference that you’re seeing is that APD has committed to Nixle. They use it for everything. Some cities feed the beast, some don’t. APD has obviously made this choice that they’re going to feed that beast. Like we were saying, fill up that stream. They’ve taken that editorial decision into their own hands; they get to decide what the editorial mix is.
In my entire career as a journalist, I’ve watched APD pull way back on the amount of information they’re putting out. And when I say “the amount,” I mean the amount of quality information.
Isn’t that dangerous?
I think it’s sort of like feeding people Styrofoam instead of vegetables. It’s like you’re giving people a bunch of useless information that doesn’t actually help them, but may titillate them. But then they’re ignoring any of the real, impactful things that might actually change the department. APD has made some mistakes, and any big organization is going to make mistakes, especially when you’re dealing with the public every day, day in and day out, oftentimes on the worst day of a person’s life and so shit’s going to happen. And you have to hold yourself accountable before other people hold you accountable, and if you don’t do it yourself, we’re gonna do it.
Did APD used to be more transparent?
Way more. Nixle kind of came out of the decision to get rid of the police scanner; the scanner used to be this thing that only the newsroom had access to. Journalists would listen to it and if anything caught our attention, the assignment managers at the TV stations or the crime reporter at the ADN would stop and listen and they would hear whatever it was that the dispatcher was calling all the cops for. So, journalists would know about something basically when the police knew about it.
Right now, there seems to be a lot of antagonism between local journalists and the APD.
I think if you ask a lot of journalists in this town, going back ten years, I think they would tell you that the antagonism has come from the change in having a uniformed officer as the Public Information Officer who is dedicated and actually knows what they’re talking about and understands the police mentality as opposed to these people who have been civilians their whole lives and all of a sudden they’re speaking for an entire police agency. That’s where that tension comes from. Either they are not confident in the things that they are saying and so they don’t say as much, or they have been told not to say much.
My conversations with the new PIO, MJ Thim, have actually been helpful, but every other PIO at APD I’ve dealt with always gave me some pre-packaged answer… I’ve been working on a project with a fellow journalist about the rising crime rate in Anchorage and every time we’ve talked to a previous PIO and mentioned 2016 being such a violent year and [serial killer] James Dale Ritchie, they shut down and tell us that they’re not releasing any more information and that all the information that they’re going to release is out there. I mean, the case is closed, so that should be public information now.