North Central Blues
APD's 'Magnificent 7' bring community policing to the North Central Command
A short line of duplexes and fourplexes, each in various states of disrepair, lines John Nance Garner Circle, a cul de sac just west of I-35 that caps the north end of Sam Rayburn Drive between Highway 183 and Rundberg. Behind one of the sun-bleached wood fences that hide the small dwellings from the trash-strewn street, chickens cluck out a cacophonous song, and a small shaggy dog crosses the street to retrieve a rib bone from behind an abandoned armchair. The eastern flank of the circle dead-ends at a vast, overgrown vacant lot that has become the neighborhood dump. Hundreds of beer bottles litter the dense weeds, on a carpet of glass shards and bottle caps, rusty car parts, broken and rotting wooden chairs, random boots and sneakers, plastic bottles, and a moldy pile of carpet and cushions. A pungent odor rises and floats down the street.
Backing up to the dump is a white apartment building wearing layers of graffiti that someone has tried to wash away more than once. Two rows of apartments surround a concrete courtyard, where a small boy is playing with a twisted and rusting metal coat hanger and a piece of plastic. A young woman sitting on a bucket outside one of the first-floor apartments watches him as he wanders the courtyard with his makeshift toys. She's seen the trash, but she doesn't live here, she says. She and her son are here from Brownsville, visiting her mother-in-law.
"I know it's a bad neighborhood," she says, and nods toward her son. "I only let him play right here."
Last month, when Austin Police Officer James Hellums walked up to survey the situation, a pile of toys topped by a red and yellow Big Wheel marked the edge of the John Nance Garner Circle dump. People shouldn't have to live like this, he said, and they shouldn't want to. "It sure would be nice to be able to say, 'Hey, pick up your trash,'" he said, and in the absence of a response to be able to write a ticket for illegal dumping a violation that could carry a relatively hefty fine. That, he says, might convince people not to dump their trash there. "It would be nice to have some bite to it."
Looking for New Tools
Right now, as one of four district representatives covering the seven districts of APD's new North Central Area Command, Hellums doesn't have that ability. As a police officer he has the authority to write the citation but he doesn't have the specific training to pursue such violations. Illegal dumping and other "nuisance" violations, like tall grass or junked cars, are city code violations that are officially handled by the code inspectors working with any of a number of city departments. The city of Austin currently lacks a citation program as one of its code enforcement tools that Hellums and his colleagues could use to combat these kinds of quality-of-life neighborhood problems.
Under programs currently underway, that will change, and by year's end the NCAC district reps will have the training (and ticket books) needed to add "code enforcement" to the list of weapons they use to fight urban blight. Indeed, attacking the problem of "distressed neighborhoods" by combining traditional law enforcement techniques with aggressive and proactive community policing is a top priority for the NCAC.
Long before Sept. 1 of last year, when the NCAC was officially established, its officers were already developing a plan to turn the area around. By design, the NCAC encompasses several of the city's highest crime areas (where police call loads are the greatest). The area has a large immigrant community and a large number of rental properties. Parks and neighborhood recreation areas are few and far between, and the area is ringed by businesses that are increasingly industrial. The combination of circumstances, over time, has led to decline not far reaching as yet, but spreading, the NCAC officers fear, unless they do something now to attack the increasingly visible problems.
Their strategy for turning around the area's pockets of neglect borrows heavily from the "broken windows" theory of policing, generally associated with the sociologist James Q. Wilson. The theory posits that crime takes root in areas overrun by obvious neglect; graffiti, trash, abandoned and deteriorating structures, junked vehicles, and poor lighting are all signs that no one cares about an area. And when no one cares, crime moves in and quality of life diminishes. If deteriorating conditions are left unchecked, people begin to leave in search of a better area, and the neglect spreads.
The North Central Blues theorize that the opposite can also be true: If they can clean up the "signs of crime" and educate and empower residents to take pride in and responsibility for their neighborhood, then crime should drop and the area should flourish. Within the NCAC they've got a name for this: Operation Restore Hope. Armed with a plan and a penchant for teamwork, the North Central community-policing gurus intend to clean up the urban core.
The ideas behind Operation Restore Hope are simple: identify blighted neighborhoods; determine the issues; corral resources, residents, and neighbors; clean and maintain. The North Central Seven Cmdr. Robert Gross and six officers he had assembled into the new area command had already identified a handful of obvious targets Sam Rayburn Drive, Galewood Drive, Hearthside Drive, Brownie Drive each with similar qualities: a large immigrant population, deteriorating properties, and (at best) uninterested landlords. Where, they wondered, should they start?
Taking Aim: Brownie Drive
The answer came in April 2003, in the form of an agitated phone call from Gloria Garcia, a homeowner living near Brownie Drive. Garcia was tired of all the trash and the deteriorating properties. It was no place to raise a child, she said, and there are a lot of kids living there. She said that she and some of her neighbors sought help from a host of different city departments, including the city manager's office, but were rebuffed. "We'd called the city manager's office and they told me, basically, that poor people have the right to live where they want," she said. "I said, 'That's not the issue. We've been poor and we didn't live like that.'" Garcia was ready to give up and move out, she told NCAC Lt. Randy Pasley but Pasley held out hope. "Randy said, 'Okay, we're going to do something about it,'" she recalled. "And he just took it and ran with it."
The NC7 knew the problems on Brownie Drive. Among the more horrifying true tales from the street was the one about the dead dog that someone hung from a street light, and the grisly discovery of a dead newborn baby discarded in a drainage pipe. They were ready to take it all on: seven blocks with 41 fourplexes and 12 single-family residences, more than 1,000 residents, nearly 90% Spanish-speaking. They took pictures, tagged junked vehicles (35 in a four-block area), and began talking with residents about the plan to address their living conditions. Two problems became apparent immediately: 1) Many of the residents did not trust the police; and 2) the problems on Brownie Drive far exceeded the scope of what the police, working alone, could handle. "There is a distrust by the immigrant community, in general, against the police," said Gross. In order to "build a bridge between the community and APD," he said, the NC officers relied heavily on district Rep. Hank Moreno, a specialist in immigrant community work, who told his colleagues that the key to gaining the residents' trust was to "make sure you have face-to-face contact out there all the time," recalled Sgt. Will Beechinor. "Lots of contact, all of the time."
During an informal neighborhood meeting on Brownie in late September (attended by nearly 150 people), the officers realized that the lack of trust was a major factor in the declining quality of life. Many residents are undocumented immigrants, unlikely to complain about living conditions and easy prey for manipulative landlords (who operate without leases, refuse to make repairs, and require that the rent be paid in cash) and other predators. Similarly, they were unlikely to seek help for other, public issues (like malfunctioning streetlights or hazardous waste disposal), or even to call the police for help.
In order to address all these problems many not directly police-related the cops were going to have to be especially resourceful. The district reps compiled a list of all the city departments that would need to play a role in Operation Restore Hope; on Oct. 15, representatives from more than 15 city and county departments and area businesses gathered for a meeting. Gross ran a slide presentation and told the attendees: "'We all do what we do to help people,'" Beechinor recalled, but given the current conditions on Brownie Drive, "We're all obviously falling down on our jobs.' He wanted a commitment from them that they'd help."
Every agency representative from Austin Energy and the Austin Fire Department to Austin/Travis County Health & Human Services Department and the Travis County District Attorney's Office pledged to help clean up Brownie Drive. "I admire the police department for what they're doing," said AFD Battalion Chief Don Smith, "It is amazing that they were able to pull together all of these groups, not just within the city but out in the community as well." On Nov. 8, nearly 300 residents and volunteers, representing more than 30 city and county departments, private businesses, neighborhood associations, and other community groups, descended on Brownie Drive for the first NC7-led Operation Restore Hope cleanup.
Volunteers collected more than 10 tons of trash and cleared a wildly overgrown field (which turned out to be a retention pond). Eighty children received fire safety training, and 40 families signed up for APD's Blue Santa program. By early December, thanks to the educational efforts of HHSD, more than 60 children were immunized and 15 people had signed up for HIV testing. By the time it was over, inspectors from AFD, solid waste services, and housing and zoning (among others) had recorded hundreds of city code violations from inoperable smoke detectors and inappropriate disposal of hazardous waste to substandard structures. "Seeing the eyes of the kids, you know you've had a positive impact," Hellums said recently, sitting with fellow DR Gizette Gaslin in their office at Lanier High School. "Now we can go out and say we helped clean this up," said Gaslin. "Lots of positive things are happening."
"In our meetings we talked about our philosophy," said Pasley, "which was to reach out to groups that were historically disenfranchised or not part of the mainstream folks who might not know how to access the system and to provide education on what it means to be a good neighbor and how to access services ... help them to become empowered to deal with their own issues." Indeed, the officers did not want Operation Restore Hope to be "just a one-act play," said Beechinor. "My emphasis was, I don't want us doing the work, it has to be the people in the neighborhood. If we do it the other way it won't work." In short, the real name of the game is maintenance: long-term buy-in and community governance.
Target Two: Enforcing the Codes
In transient neighborhoods like Brownie, that's no small feat, says Linda Moore, president of the North Austin Civic Association. Her neighborhood, which stretches from Lamar west to Metric Boulevard, and Highway 183 north to Kramer Lane, has 10,000 households, and 72% are rental properties. "It's hard to get them involved," she said. To complicate matters, there are a lot of absentee landlords, or "slumlords," visibly uninterested in maintaining their properties. Over time, neglect turns to squalor and attracts crime. "So, the way the area looks has a great deal to do with how good people feel about where they live," she said. On occasion, after spotting and documenting a problem property, Moore has tried to make contact with the landlord, but "never with much success," she said. "I never heard back."
The four North Central district reps are appalled by the stories of Brownie residents. In one apartment, Moreno recalled, a landlord dealt with a rotting second-story floor by layering pieces of carpet one on top of another; when Moreno walked across the room, he said, he could feel the floor sink "at least three inches" from the weight. Yet it was common knowledge that complaining was a dangerous proposition: Some landlords made it clear that tenant complaints would end with a call to immigration authorities.
In December the officers contacted the Brownie landlords and set up a meeting a move that Gross, Pasley, and Beechinor considered integral to maintaining forward momentum. "We [told them] there are some substandard structures and some questionable business practices," Beechinor said. The officers suggested formation of a property-owners association to help them police their own. "There were a lot of ideas exchanged ... and we planned a second meeting to discuss the actual formation of the association," he said. "It never materialized. We sent a letter, an e-mail, and placed a follow-up phone call. None of them showed up and we let them pick the date, to fit in with all of their busy calendars." To the NC7, Moore, and others, there is only one sure way to ensure landlord accountability and to maintain momentum not only for the Brownie residents, but for all the area neighbors committed to the continued success of Operation Restore Hope: Implement aggressive and sustained code enforcement.
Working on the Brownie cleanup, Pasley recalled, the officers had been surprised by the city's approach to code enforcement. City reps "explained that they are so few in number that if they worked [the code violations] on Brownie Drive alone and in no other part of the city it would take years to complete," he said. "We learned the problems, the speed bumps and obstacles that [inspectors] have to deal with," added Beechinor. "[W]e learned that it is a big boat and that everybody's got to grab an oar." To the NC7, that means getting their district reps trained in code enforcement and encouraging the city to implement a code-enforcement citation program, which would allow them to issue tickets, and impose fines, on violators. "If the DRs are supposed to be problem solvers, then they have to be problem solvers on a variety of levels," said Gross. "Rather than just going to deal with a police-related problem. ... You get involved on both sides of the coin and we can all go further."
That will take some doing. Currently, code inspectors work for eight different city departments, each with a different purview. Solid Waste Services inspectors handle overgrown weeds and illegal dumping, Neighborhood Planning and Zoning Department inspectors handle substandard structures, APD handles junked vehicles ... and so on. The entire system is almost entirely complaint-driven, says Cora Wright, NPZD assistant director. There are four housing inspectors and six zoning inspectors for the entire city; in fiscal year 2003 NPZD handled 975 housing and 1,977 zoning complaints. Within their respective territories, if inspectors "see a very obvious and potentially dangerous situation they can initiate a case," Wright said, but "most of our work is complaint-driven." And working a complaint is often a drawn-out process: A "notice of violation" with a "reasonable time" to correct the problem is sent by certified mail. The problem is re-inspected at the end of that time period, unless the owner receives an extension. If the problems still aren't fixed, a second round of letters and inspections are scheduled. Eventually, if the problems aren't remedied, the case is forwarded to the city's Building and Standards Commission, which reviews the case and can issue an "order of repair," or, "if it's a dangerous building and poses an imminent threat to public safety, they will issue an order for demolition," Wright said. "By the time the case is before the BSC, it's pretty clear that you [do] not intend to comply."
The inefficient enforcement structure offers violators plenty of opportunity to stall or avoid compliance and that has hurt cleanup efforts on Brownie, says resident Lydia Molina. "We had all these people working and now it's like everybody's dropped off the Earth," she said. For example, the landlord living in the unit below hers was making needed repairs to the property and was told an inspector would return in two weeks to re-inspect, "and he hasn't come back," she said. Without consistency, "the area's kind of let go again. They should start citing and start fining," she said. "If [the police] or the city would really come out here and start giving fines, that might work."
Indeed, it does work and well in other cities, like Dallas, where all city code enforcement activities are housed in one office, and all inspectors are cross-trained and can issue citations. For enforcement purposes, Dallas is split into seven districts (determined by density and the number and complexity of complaints) manned by a total of 144 inspectors assigned to the districts in teams that are "responsible for what their districts look like," said Kathy Davis, Dallas' director of code compliance. Inspectors are outfitted with wireless computer technology connected to the city's integrated 311 system, meaning complaints can be dispatched directly to the field, where the inspectors spend at least 90% of their day. The integrated and efficient approach has reduced significantly the number of code complaints: 40% of their cases are now "proactive," or inspector-generated. "That's not bad, but we want to get to 60-40 proactive," said Davis.
And Dallas is seeing fewer repeat offenders, attributable in part to an aggressive citation program. "People, unfortunately, learn the process," Davis said, "and, unfortunately, if they learn that there's no sting to the letter, then they know they can get away with it," which is why the citations work. "Let's put it this way," she said, "right now citations are bringing in between $70,000 to $90,000 per month. So, yeah, it's generating revenue."
Wright said she hopes the city of Austin will soon be on a similar track. The city has been working on revamping code enforcement for more than a year now, she said, and is on the way to making changes that could be positive for the NC7's Operation Restore Hope. Wright has been to Dallas with a group of city officials (including Beechinor) and likes what she saw; Austin is now implementing a remote computer system, is moving toward a citation program (authority was created by ordinance late last month), and is working on cross-training inspectors and on getting the NC district reps trained. "We are identifying from other city departments what exactly they enforce to see how we can become a force multiplier for them," said Gross. If all goes well, his reps will have completed the training and certification by the end of the year. "If we can maintain the momentum, if we can maintain the changes that have occurred, then I'll feel really good."
There have been a lot of changes on Brownie. The residents formed their own neighborhood association, and are planning their first project, another Brownie cleanup, scheduled for the first weekend in June. Many of the residences have been repaired and freshly painted; seven of the fourplexes are slated for review this month by the BSC. And while the NC7 continue to maintain communication with Brownie, and the NC street response and patrol officers are continuing "zero tolerance" law enforcement (for public intoxication, among other things), they are also planning the next ORH project, scheduled for later this year on Galewood Drive. "And we'll lay the template over the next target area," said Beechinor. "It's smaller, but also with a large immigrant population and, guess what, some of the same landlords." The NC7 philosophy building a team to combat blight is catching. Since Brownie, NACA has begun targeting their own areas for cleanup and, along with other neighborhood groups, is working more closely with their neighborhood police. Others are taking notice too: Last month, the NC7 was approached by officials with the Portuguese government interested in learning how to build their own Operation Restore Hope. This kind of program "has never been done in this department," said Gaslin. "We've made a difference and it's reassuring."
"Coming Soon to a Neighborhood Near You"
Garcia says the ORH strategy is successful because of the people involved. "It seems like they really care, and they've put action behind that," she said. "To be honest with you, when I looked at Brownie I just saw filth." But the cops, she said, "saw the bigger picture over there. [Pasley] saw it as a quality of life issue. He said they have a right to have better living conditions. It's amazing that they could [take] a complaint so basic as 'trash,' and translate it to a quality of life issue. It certainly made me feel like, well, maybe something will really be done."
The NC7 want to see that happen. "We want it to be commonplace to see banners or stickers [that read], 'Coming Soon to a Neighborhood Near You, Another Police Department Operation Restore Hope,'" said Pasley. "As our city continues to expand and take on new areas, it becomes more important that we take care of the existing properties instead of letting them slide." Gross agrees. "If we don't fix the problem it's going to spread," he said. "If we're going to restore hope for one group we have to restore hope for all groups."