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  • 30 Sep 2014

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Beating crime to the punch

New police boots-on-the-ground plan may cool city hot spots


by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Juan Muros, resident services coordinator at Villa de Clara Vista apartments, shows Portland police Sgt. Mark Friedman where  gangs and graffiti used to proliferate--until police started making foot patrols.A 15-minute stroll along Northeast Killingsworth Street in the Cully neighborhood is all Portland police Sgt. Mark Friedman needs to feel productive.

A convenience store owner tells Friedman that in the evening gangbangers hang out in her parking lot, and when she refuses to sell alcohol to the underage members her windows are broken overnight. Friedman will have officers come by and look at her security camera images.

The manager of a low-income apartment building stops to chat up Friedman, explaining that since police started coming by on foot every other week for an hour or two, he’s seen a decrease in gang activity and graffiti has almost disappeared.

“The kids start noticing them and bad people are starting to move away from the property because it’s so random,” says Juan Muros, resident services coordinator of the Villa de Clara Vista apartments.

According to Muros, many residents of the complex don’t speak fluent English and thus don’t feel comfortable calling in a complaint to police. But if an officer could come around on foot more frequently, Muros says, they might get comfortable enough to register complaints and observations in person with an officer.

Muros might soon get his wish for more frequent foot patrols.

Next week, Portland police officers will begin participating in an experiment designed to reveal whether their mere presence at the right place at the right time can discourage potential offenders from commiting crimes.

During the next three to four months, officers will make scheduled 15-minute visits to 40 crime hot spots, getting out of their cars, walking around, and casually striking up conversations with shop owners and pedestrians. Another 20 identified hot spots—the experiment’s controls—will not see any additional policing. By spring, police strategists and their Portland State University consultants expect to have enough data to determine whether the proactive police visits are damping down crime, and whether that crime is moving to surrounding areas.

If what those officers are doing sounds like community policing in its most fundamental sense, it is, but in small increments. According to Sgt. Greg Stewart of the bureau’s crime analysis unit, there is plenty of evidence that even 15-minute appearances can reduce overall crime and engender better police/community relations, which can lead to more help from the public after a crime has been committed.

Stewart and PSU researchers have analyzed the last three years of Portland crime data. They’ve discovered that 40 percent of the crimes in Portland occur in 3.5 percent of the city’s geography. That’s excluding crimes such as embezzlement and domestic violence, which generally take place behind closed doors. They’ve been able to identify hot spots as small as a single apartment complex parking lot or a drug dealing streetcorner.

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - As part of his community policing walk, Street Crimes Unit Sgt. Mark Friedman checks in with Virginia Q. Salinas of the Bienestar Family Wellness Program on Northeast Killingsworth Street.Similar projects in other cities, Stewart says, have shown that an officer spending 15 minutes in a hot spot can have a damping effect on crime there for up to two hours. But less clear from other cities’ experiences is exactly what officers should be doing in their 15 minute foot patrols to maximize their impact.

So Portland officers are being given a list of possible activities, and they will be required to report which actions they take during each stop. Walking and talking to pedestrians and striking up conversations with shop owners are basic. But in some high crime areas such as apartment complexes where gang members hang out, they could push the envelope of casual encounters to include stopping youths and patting them down for weapons.

The key to getting officers out of their cars and meeting people face to face is a piece of the experiment that is moving Portland beyond what any other city has tried. In cities such as Sacramento, officers have been told what spots they should try to visit each day when they weren’t responding to calls from dispatch.

The problem with that, experts say, is that officers will naturally put those 15 minute visits toward the bottom of their priority lists. But in Portland, officers in squad cars will be getting calls from dispatch to head over to particular hot spots—so the practice is built into their scheduling.

That’s going to make a huge difference in officer acceptance of the new policy, says Brian Dale, a member of the buruea’s gang enforcement team. Most officers, Dale insists, want to community police and solve problems, rather than react to crime calls. But, he says, they feel hamstrung by other demands on their time.

Dale says when he worked patrol in Northeast Portland, taking time to walk and talk was nearly impossible. “You’d feel guilty if you got out there and got involved in stuff,” he says. “Calls are coming in and your neighboring district officers have to take your calls and that creates tension.”

Involving disptach should eliminate that tension, according to Stewart.

“What it basically says is we think it’s just as important you spend some time out of your car in these areas as it would be responding to a theft that happened the day before,” he says. “It moves from a reactive mode of just responding to cold calls to a proactive model where we’re trying to prevent crime before it occurs.”

Portland Police Chief Mike Reese says now that the city’s dispatch system has been redesigned to accommodate the new policy, it can be used in a variety of ways to encourage community policing. When children are arriving at their schools the morning of the first school day of the year, officers can get dispatched to different schools for short visits, for instance.

Reese says the move to hot spot policing by the police bureau is an effort to become more efficient with fewer officers. Portland police have fewer officers per capita than just about any similar sized city in the country, yet the city still retains a remarkably low violent crime rate.

Ironically, Reese points out, decades ago police officers in many cities stopped walkng beats and started spending most of their time patrolling by car as a means to become more efficient. Now, criminologists believe that efficiency might be enhanced by feet on the sidewalk, if the locatiion and timing are right.

Reese recognizes that not all officers are willing participants in, or oriented toward, out of the car policing, but he says the new policy is sending a message to all the bureau’s officers about where he sees the bureau heading. He says in addition to reducing crime, he wants to improve relations between the community and his officers, and face to face will do that.

“If you’re not a person who likes to meet and greet and talk to folks, you’re probably not a Portland police officer,” says Reese.


by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Sgt. Greg Stewart of Portlands Polices Crime Analysis Unit, here walking with Street Crimes Unit Sgt. Mark Friedman, has spearheaded the bureaus new community policing experiment.

Officers' attitudes important in crime-fighting walks

Two years ago in Sacramento, a three-month experiment had police officers making short visits to 21 high-crime hot spots throughout the day while 21 other high-crime spots received no extra attention. The visited spots had 105 serious crimes during the three months, while the spots with no extra patrols — the experiment's controls — had 121 serous crimes.

Sgt. Renee Mitchell of the Sacramento police headed up her department's experiment, and has consulted extensively with police here on a new Portland strategy being introduced this week.

With serious crime at a 40-year low, Mitchell says, incremental crime reductions such as those made in Sacramento are significant and hard to come by. She likens hot-spot policing experiments such as Portland's to the controlled clinical trials used to guide treatments in health care. Policing, she says, needs to begin using data to guide policy, “instead of our normal approach to policing, which is following our gut or intuition or tradition or local practice.”

Along those lines, the Portland experiment will study dosage in a more refined way than other cities have attempted. Twenty Portland hot spots will receive two 15-minute visits a day, 20 similar hot spots will receive four or five visits a day and 20 will receive no extra attention.

“If you could show you can get a crime drop with a lower dose, that's good information for policing all around the world,” Mitchell says.

Experiments in other cities have shown that 15-minute stops might be optimal. Experts say longer stops yield diminishing returns and can begin to produce a negative effect. One of the goals of hot spotting is to encourage residents in high-crime areas to feel safer and more connected to police, but that can't happen if people begin to feel under siege from too much police presence.

“If they start seeing cops around all the time, for them it's like, ‘Oh gosh, my neighborhood maybe isn't as good as I think it is,’ ” Mitchell says.

Some studies even suggest that too much police presence in an area can create resentments that lead to higher crime.

Ironically, Sacramento decided to discontinue hot-spot policing after its experiment ended in 2011. Mitchell cites two reasons: First, she says, were police bureau budget cuts. “When you're trying to stop the bleeding, you don't have time for anything new,” she says.

But, the second reason hot spotting didn't stick in Sacramento had to do with police officer attitudes. Mitchell says some officers resented the new policy dictating how they would spend their discretionary time — when they weren't responding to calls. And some studies have shown that a significant number of police don't believe hot spotting works, but think that crime simply moves from one area to another.

“It's not part of our culture yet,” Mitchell says.