Zone Defense

   A few hours after a homeless guy named Virgil died of an overdose in the portable toilet, the blue plastic outhouse at 6th and San Julian streets was back in business. Not as a toilet, but as a house of prostitution.

   T.J., who keeps her wardrobe in one of the outhouses ... is wearing a sheer red top, nothing underneath, and skin-tight black pants. She's bummed a Newport and has it to her lips, but can't find a light.

   As she speaks, a rat skitters up from the sewer and through a grate, past a discarded brassiere, a smooshed apple and an empty bag of Fritos. Rats run into, under and around the portable toilets with a brazen sense of entitlement, as comfortable as house pets.

   Sights like this are common on L.A.'s skid row, a rock-bottom depository and national embarrassment. A place where disease, abuse, crime and hard-luck misery are on public display and have been for years, conveniently out of sight and mind for most Angelenos. No matter how many times I go in, I come out shocked all over again.

   The above is an excerpt from the Los Angeles Times journalist Steve Lopez, who was famously portrayed by Robert Downey Jr. in the 2009 movie, The Soloist. Lopez wrote countless segments for the paper describing the crime and depravity in L.A.'s Skid Row. Law enforcers, researchers and sociologists have long scratched their heads about places like this — a seeming third-world slum nestled inside the world's wealthiest nation. How did it come to this? Can it at least be tamed? They wonder (and wonder still) about the best way to keep such areas from spiraling out of control.

   In the early 1980s it was suggested if a community tolerates quality-of-life offenses, such as drug use and prostitution, it signals to all potential lawbreakers that it doesn't care what happens to it; more serious crime will soon result. The theory was first posited in a 1982 article in the Atlantic by criminologist George L. Kelling and James Q. Wilson, a political scientist at Harvard. The "Broken Windows" policing theory has been examined and reexamined. To some it's a common sense approach, while others say it's nothing more than "wishful thinking," that any concerted effort to clean up crime problem areas, or "hot spots," is basically akin to maneuvering that crime next door.

   Regardless, researchers are still putting the model to work. The city of Lowell, Mass., conducted its own up-close experiment in 2005. In the Lowell study, researchers and police concentrated on 34 crime hot spots. In half of them, authorities repaired street lights, cleaned up trash and secured abandoned buildings. Mental health services and homeless aid referrals expanded. At the end of the experiment, it was reported calls to police in those areas that were cleaned up decreased by 20 percent. On February 9, 2009, as the study concluded, the Boston Globe called the experiment a "breakthrough" in linking crime with conditions.

The Lowell study

   Lowell Police Superintendant Kenneth Lavallee, a deputy superintendant at the time of the study, was tasked with managing officers and ensuring the study was kept legitimate and valid. "There was a lot of work involved with putting additional resources into areas that were problematic … officers would meet on a monthly basis, and I would make sure everyone was doing exactly what they were supposed to," recalls Lavallee.

   On patrol, officers were more attuned to issues they typically were not expected to recognize. A dumpster overrun with trash, for example, was a major problem, creating "the appearance that nobody cared for that particular area," says Lavallee. "Trash would grow and grow and end up in the sidewalk and onto the street."He maintains that even the small act of cleaning up an over-stuffed trash bin helped reduce crime in the neighborhood.

   On another side of town a drug-drenched, dilapidated housing project was demolished and replaced with single-family houses — bringing the crime in that area down to literally zero.

   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.

Hidden populations

   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."

   When it comes time to crack down on loitering, these individuals must keep moving or (ideally) find help. In LePere's opinion a solution needs to be sought by anyone who has the means in which to help. Homelessness is everybody's problem.

   "Law enforcement generally is frustrated with policing the homeless because there is so much need for that population, and many times a community will expect the police to solve the problem instead of getting their hands in it," he says.

   Some cities, like Kansas City, Mo., have or are in the process of establishing homeless commissions and task forces that involve groups from all sectors of the population. Councilwoman Cathy Jolly (Kansas City) petitioned to start a homeless task force in September of 2009 that will include individuals from higher education, the business district, lawyers, housing authority, health care, the homeless coalition, and law enforcement. But she hopes others will get involved, as well.

   "One thing [our chief of police] stressed was that the police department does have a substantial amount of contact with homeless folks, and what that means for our city," says Jolly. "I'm tasked with reaching out to other jurisdictions to work with us, because we know homelessness knows no county or city lines."

What cleaning up can do

   Like homelessness, crime and criminal activity is not neatly confined by jurisdictions. Lavallee admits that when they replaced the run-down housing projects with single-family homes in Lowell, they saw a drop in crime, but also a transfer of crime activity. This is a common critique/concern of Broken Windows policing. When the strategy is applied, and applied well, it is evidenced that communities are cleaner and citizens more involved, taking ownership of where they live and work. Keeping a close watch does more good than harm.

   From what he's seen in his 20 years in law enforcement, Taylor says all officers receive training in Broken Windows, adding "It's the way we do business." Like an aggressive zone defense, good police work does not yield to unlawful adversaries.

   "The opposition is always going to find the weakness in the zone," says Taylor. "But if everybody played their zone strong I think things would be much better. Unfortunately we have different jurisdictions doing it differently, social services where some are willing to play and some don't want to have anything to do with it."

A matter of perspective

   No matter how many times Broken Windows is taught in academies and training sessions, this multi-faceted — and very involved — method of "keeping crime at bay" will have its skeptics. Bernard Harcourt, professor of law and political science at the University of Chicago, argues the social science evidence has "pretty conclusively demonstrated that there's nothing to the theory." In other words, there's no good evidence at our fingertips that disorderliness actually causes crime. He goes on to say there remains no good criminological evidence that Broken Windows-type policing actually reduces crime, stating "The two pieces of the puzzle remain essentially unproven." Which leaves us to wonder: Is Broken Windows nothing more than wishful thinking?

   "Wouldn't it be nice to not have to deal with deeper issues than whether there's graffiti on the walls?" asks Harcourt. "I would think it would cost less, would be less difficult … the world would be a lot better place if [it] were true. I think that's why it kind of lingers on."

   It might be as simple as that. Urban crime and all its many-spangled woes are still the result of the obvious big players: alcohol, guns, gang activity and economic hardship. But does any crime arise from the cracked walls of a run-down apartment complex? And for that matter could doing away with the dingy complex stomp out crime? It's a chicken-and-egg type dilemma. At the same time, it's apparent why the theory remains evocative. It is hopeful to believe that change can arise and conditions improve if you just apply a little elbow grease.

   At the least, it can't hurt.