As time went on Lavallee and others on the force found that simply paying more attention to problem areas, through both police resources and city resources, was very effective. "It wasn't striking, because that's what the theory was from the get-go," says Lavallee. "Paying attention to … some of the smaller things like trash and disorder create a much safer environment for the people who live there." But how long could it last?
Shortly after the study was completed sustainability became an issue. Staffing was deeply cut when the budget crisis hit. Now the agency counts on Federal and State grants to help maintain awareness in the same neighborhoods they shook up a few years back, and apparently to some avail. Lavallee reports that from 2008 to 2009 the agency continued to see an overall decline in crime in the city of Lowell.
In order to really be effective at patrolling these zones, it's necessary to take into account every single member of that community. How does the strategy affect the business owner and the child on the playground? Homeless populations who reside in large urban cities struggling with crime pose particular challenges to officers policing the streets. Case in point: Sacramento, Calif. The state capital, population 463,794, is rumored to have the second highest violent crime per 100,000, and the second highest property crimes per 100,000 behind Oakland, Calif. In addition to that, Sacramento's homeless individuals are able to find a number of resources in the warm, sprawling West Coast city.
According to law enforcers working that region, Broken Windows is the backbone of their process in dealing with these communities. "Homelessness isn't a crime, but camping in someone's doorway, camping on someone's property when you don't have a right to be there, littering, etc., that is a crime," says Sgt. Chris Taylor with the Sacramento PD. He points out officers specifically assigned to do enforcement related to the homeless in Sacramento first enforce camping laws, and then mobilize the city's resources, which amounts to code enforcement and neighborhood services divisions getting out there and cleaning up. If a mess is not cleaned up, according to Taylor, the problem just perpetuates itself.
"Basically it conveys to people who might not obey the law that's an area of our city that we don't really care about," says Taylor. "And to people who do obey the law it sends the same message, and so they don't want to be there; it gives them a fearful opinion of the city."
Taylor (and all the other law enforcement officers I spoke with) was careful to emphasize that homelessness is not a crime. But certain ways of being homeless can become a crime, such as encroaching on other peoples' property — it's a delicate balance. To someone struggling to live, petty theft becomes a means of survival. Beat cops must enforce the laws that are being broken, but always treat homeless individuals humanely and with respect. They must be effective mediators between service providers and some of the individuals they meet on the streets who, for whatever reason, find themselves without permanent residence at the moment.
"You try to refer people to the service providers who can best meet the needs of the individuals," says Assistant Chief of Police Bill LePere with the Lakeland (Fla.) Police Department. "And you try to police the area to maintain some sort of community decorum or quality of life. But at the same time if the best tool to solve a problem in our toolbox is the power of arrest, then we will make arrests to help attack the problem."
A cocktail of protection and prevention
Many homeless individuals police themselves and even ferret out those who commit crimes, either within the population or against it. As a group of homeless people congregate in Lakeland's town square park, carrying their meager possessions in tow, it creates a "visual blight" for many passersby who wish to shop and work downtown. But LePere points out the homeless feel safer there, because "they're not going to be preyed upon by street thugs when they have all the other so-called 'guardians' watching what's going on." It's a safe place for them to be during the daytime until the shelters open up for showers and meals.
"It's important for officers to know who's in the park and to know who they are, because they are there for a reason," says LePere. "It's worked very well for us on more than a handful of occasions."