Crime and Banishment

The science of rooting out crime where it lives.

Illustration By Doug Chayka

Four Crown Vics and a Cincinnati Police SUV line both sides of Conover Street in Madisonville, lights on alert though not flashing, a few minutes before 9 a.m. The windows of house number 6108 are open, filled with plywood, paper, what looks like a mattress pad; the front porch is partially collapsed and piled with broken furniture; the driveway is scattered with trashcans, a dirty mattress, and rubble. Assistant City Solicitor Mark Manning joins the police and instructs them to make sure there’s nothing valuable and no one inside. They shout a warning—Police! Police!—before kicking the locked front door open. Once the officers confirm that the building is clear, a contractor barricades the place. With a handsaw powered by a portable gas generator, he saws sheets of plywood in the back of his truck, fitting them to unsecured openings. Next to the court notice still hanging on the front door, they affix a padlock. It’s all over by 9:13.

Two days before, on December 7, Manning stood before Judge Robert Ruehlman, filing for a temporary restraining order that would allow the city to seize and barricade the property, naming it a public nuisance. The case is the result of a search warrant executed last November that found multiple weapons, a few grams of crack cocaine, and roughly an ounce of marijuana in the possession of the tenant—who was connected to multiple violent episodes in the neighborhood—along with structural and health violations, such as a crumbling chimney and a feces-covered basement.

A Google street view of 6108 Conover St., dated September 2011, shows a clean, maintained home, a testament to just how quickly neglect can take root and transform a place. And while it’s not the only example of disrepair on the street, it’s certainly not the norm. Most of the homes nearby are well kept, some painted in deep red and periwinkle blue. Even as the barricading takes place, one guy heads down the sidewalk with a cup of coffee, stopping to chat with the man who lives next door, and later, exchanging a friendly hello with the cops. Yet just a few steps away lies a nexus of blight and crime—one of many that the city is trying to clean up.

It’s part of Cincinnati’s problem-oriented policing strategy, a methodology the city has followed as part of the Collaborative Agreement crafted in the aftermath of 2001’s civic unrest, and one that has continued to evolve. Fundamentally, problem-solving in the context of policing means carefully looking at the facts of a specific situation, applying thoughtful analysis, and proceeding in a strategic way to abate the issue. That means: Not mass-arresting, not stopping-and-frisking, not racially profiling (intentionally or not), and not wasting resources. The shuttering of 6108 Conover is a particular example of the city’s effort to neutralize the locations where crime has taken root and thrived.

“Crime is highly concentrated at the sub-neighborhood level—at addresses, street corners. This is even more startling because of how much crime is concentrated at how few addresses. It is far from random,” says Dr. John Eck, a professor of criminal justice at the University of Cincinnati. “This suggests that if you focus on why crime is at this particular location, but not some other seemingly similar location nearby, you can get some idea of what you can do about it.”

From his post in the law department, Manning is the primary enforcer of the Chronic Nuisance Ordinance. Put on the books in 2006 (and updated after two protracted lawsuits), it was created to deal with multi-family apartment buildings with a higher than average incidence of calls for service—places that play host to crime and often poor living conditions. If a property exceeds the established threshold of calls for its size, the owners receive a notice requiring them to work with the city to create an abatement plan. And many places do just that, case closed. “If you’re doing the responsible thing and addressing it, we don’t fine you or cite you,” says Manning. But when owners ignore the notice and issues continue, it leads to fines, civil citations, and criminal prosecution.

“The approach of Chronic Nuisance isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach to a lot of problems,” says Manning. “It tends to be very drawn out. You don’t see [an immediate impact] for very long because it’s based on a monthly billing cycle and you have to analyze lots of calls for service.”

This has resulted in a novel use of civil litigation. Case in point: the Alms Hill Apartments in Walnut Hills. After years of crime, disorder, and health and safety violations, a search warrant inspection in late 2014 led to a trial this past December in which Judge Beth Myers ruled Alms Hill a public nuisance. (Five additional properties also owned by Chaim Puretz, a New York–based real estate investor, including one in Avondale where leaks caused the roof to deteriorate, were also declared nuisances.) Pursuing civil litigation, rather than criminal housing court claims, gives Manning and the two new attorneys being added to his team more ammunition. “We can mix and match and add in other things to that litigation—not just calls for police service but actual crimes and building code conditions and whatever else. It’s a new approach,” he says. “Instead of just presenting a judge with Here’s this one thing that this one property owner didn’t fix this one time, now it’s more like: Here is the picture of this property, and why it’s a detriment to this community from a dozen different angles.

The city has taken a place-based approach to crime in other ways, as well. The Code Enforcement Response Team was formed in the late ’90s to bring together representatives from across departments—police, health, buildings, law, fire—to collectively address properties causing crime and blight. While it’s been effectively used in parts of the city, it’s had a rocky history and is currently slated to be revamped. The Neighborhood Enhancement Program—a 90-day community-collaborative effort launched in 2007 that moves from neighborhood to neighborhood blitzing building code issues, beautifying, and making physical changes (e.g. adding lighting) to interfere with crime hotspots—has helped as well. But both programs have their limitations: They can only address the physical problems of a property. And place involves much more than tangible materials.

“There’s always a misconception,” says Captain Maris Herold, who last fall was shifted from her post as District Four commander to develop a new strategy of place-based policing for CPD. “There’s a physical problem, but then there’s the behavioral and the root causation. It’s really easy to fix the physical part of the place. It’s extremely challenging to fix the environmental causes of what is facilitating the crime. That becomes a much more challenging conversation, because it’s not historically the way the police look at a place. The part that’s hard to understand is: Who is in control of the property? Why are they allowing it to disintegrate into a place that allows or tolerates crime and disorder?”

Assistant Chief Dave Bailey, a CPD veteran who’s working to bring the place-based strategy online, uses the Sycamore Hotel in Roselawn as an example. The hotel was a hotspot for an assortment of crimes—prostitution, drug dealing, shootings—for years, but no matter how often cops answered the call, little changed.

“The police were looking at it as: It’s a pain. It’s eating up all our resources, we spend all our time up there, we run our head against the wall making arrests and everything—we’ve done this for years. We just want to mitigate it,” he says. So they changed their approach, talked to Manning, and began asking What’s causing this? There were no serious issues with the physical structure, and the management complied with whatever changes were requested. Yet they still had to execute frequent search warrants on the premises. “Anytime you showed up in a police cruiser an alarm went off because someone was running out the back to get away from the police,” says Manning. So they launched an investigation, which included planting a vice officer as a confidential informant, and ultimately proved that the management was allowing the prostitution, drug use, and violence. In 2013, they closed the hotel down, and took a more holistic approach to the aftermath.

“We put a lot of services in for the women who were up there,” says Herold. “We really did that right in terms of following the problem-solving model. There was a huge human trafficking issue with these women, and there still continues to be. We had the Off the Streets program [and] the Red Cross come up, we had vice officers try to bring the women in to seek out treatment. The majority of those women were completely strung out on heroin. So we brought in rehab services.”

Herold speaks with the calm demeanor and big-picture sense you’d seek out in a therapist. For years, she’s been fascinated by this influence of place in crime, and the science of how and why a few specific locations can cause such disorder. “If you know that,” she says, “surely you can prevent that.” And with the support of the chief and others at CPD, she aims to do that. The exact structure of the new strategy is still under development, but Herold notes it will be run in tandem with the Cincinnati Initiative to Reduce Violence, which focuses on the specific perpetrators of crime; it will include multiple teams (city, community, social services, a board of directors) working together on the same places and problems; and it will prioritize the highest-crime spots. Which makes sense. “You can think of them as points of infection,” says Eck. There’s the location itself, and the spillover issues nearby. “But when one deals with these really bad properties, crime not only reduces at the bad property, it reduces in the immediate area, too. It doesn’t displace out.”

To those involved, Herold’s task is the next stage in the evolution of policing put into motion by the big bang that was the Collaborative Agreement. Data has been behind this movement from the start; without the ability to track calls for service or cross-check stats across departments, without facts to act as the very basis of any analysis, there is no ability to zero in on a place and problem-solve. “The idea behind problem-oriented policing,” says Eck, “is that crime, disorder, traffic accidents—anything that the police are routinely asked to deal with—form patterns. Those patterns give information about what is leading to those concentrations of events, and that gives hints as to what one can do about it. And the police [can] do more to prevent crime over the long haul by looking at those underlying conditions.”

When Harry Black became city manager, one of his first acts was to hire Chad Kenney, a colleague from Baltimore, to head up the new Office of Performance & Data Analytics. Kenney operates from a renovated corner of Centennial Plaza, with one room resembling a mini version of the UN General Assembly hall. His prime directive is to bring data-driven (read: more accountable and efficient) management to all city departments and unite them in their approach to solving problems. Among the office’s several functions, it’s Kenney’s use of predictive analytics that holds the most promise for place-based policing. The aim is to catch crime and blight before it becomes crime and blight.

Last summer, the city received a fellowship through the University of Chicago’s Data Science for Social Good program to develop a model that pulls addresses and runs an algorithm based on property, health, and building inspections; interactions with law enforcement; permit data; previous citations; and other pertinent information (i.e., property value) to create a list of the top few hundred properties inspectors should proactively check. “Part of that is providing the inspectors with a dashboard, essentially a visualization of that predictive model. By taking in all that data, we can give you a risk score of where a property would land,” says Kenney.

The potential result? An increase in the discovery of property violations: A prototype projected a 78 percent success rate, nearly double the 43 percent rate of the Neighborhood Enhancement Program’s concentrated code enforcement initiative.

“We have probably one of the most data-driven police departments in the country,” says Black. “They’re not doing predictive analytics, but that’s next. And the methodology will be relatively the same. Those data sets, when combined together from an intelligence standpoint, can provide some prediction relative to crime in terms of where, when, who, and what.” Over the next six to 12 months, Kenney says, the blight-predictor prototype will be field-tested and eventually embedded into the city’s day-to-day operations.

“This effort is the answer to how policing can be fair,” says Al Gerhardstein. The renowned civil rights attorney, a key figure in the creation of the Collaborative Agreement, still works in the area of police brutality. He speaks clearly, deliberately: “The whole difference of the Cincinnati police reform effort and that in other cities has been this commitment to problem-solving—and [it] is grounded in a thorough look at the data. That’s important for fairness and racial equality. Because think about it: The alternative is a reactive type of policing where you chase bad guys and you chase the radio and you inevitably use the number of arrests you [make] as your metric of what effective policing is. In an era when we’re trying to reduce mass incarceration, in an era when we’re trying to right the ship, you need strategies that can keep people safe while continuing to address the whole problem of crime.”

This sentiment is echoed by Eck, who notes we’re used to thinking of entire neighborhoods as bad, when it’s often a select number of bad properties that end up driving the neighborhood down. There’s no simple answer to crime or blight, and there are huge systemic and historical forces at work that no single policing policy can readily absolve. But there are better ways, and there are worse ways.

“You look around with these various police-involved shootings—Baltimore and Cleveland and Ferguson and go down the list. A lot of that stems from lack of analysis into where you want to put your officers and what you want them to do when they get there,” says Eck. “One of the reasons why members of the Collaborative Agreement are so strong on place-based approaches is because if we reduce the need for police to run lights-and-sirens into emergencies, there are fewer opportunities for the police and the public to get in trouble with each other.” Instead, there’s more of a chance that they might just casually say hi as a house that used to cause havoc is finally boarded up.

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