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Tackling a housing project of ill repute
    
Problem-solving strategy brings new life to troubled complex

By Mark R. Beckner

The Boulder Police Department is committed to providing quality service in partnership with our community. As part of our philosophy in providing that service, we actively support and encourage the involvement of our members in creative problem-solving efforts. Granted, problem-solving can be difficult and frustrating at times, yet such efforts can also be very effective and satisfying for both the community and department members.

We are starting to see the benefits of what partnering with the community to solve crime-related problems can provide. The following case study illustrates the process, issues, problems and successes encountered in addressing a long-standing problem with one of the city’s low-income housing projects.

 

San Juan, We Have a Problem
The San Juan Del Centro housing complex is a low-income housing development that serves the needs of approximately 700-750 members of the Boulder community. People living at the complex come from diverse backgrounds, including Hispanic, Asian, African-American and American Indian cultures.

For years, dating back to at least 1978, the San Juan complex was known as a haven for criminals, criminal activity, drug and alcohol problems, and general nuisance problems. While many of the residents were law-abiding citizens trying to make a living and raise families, a significant number of residents were not. Police were all too familiar with the problems associated with the complex, such as numerous fights and assaults, property damage, thefts, alcohol-related problems, drug dealing, etc. Furthermore, the police were not well liked by most of the residents, either because the residents were involved in criminal behavior, or because they were fearful and did not believe the police were meeting their needs. Thus, when officers responded to criminal activity, they found it difficult to find cooperative witnesses. Complicating matters still further, in many cases there was a language barrier between the officers and many of the residents. Because of this, residents of the San Juan complex often did not get the service or attention that other city residents received.

But just as the residents were distrustful of the police, the police were distrustful of the residents. During the early and mid-1980s things had gotten so bad that during the evening hours officers were generally not dispatched to calls for service without a cover officer. Officers rarely went into the complex by themselves, and usually only when dispatched to a call. While the situation improved somewhat through the sporadic efforts of residents, management and the police, the complex remained well known for criminal and behavioral problems. Increased enforcement efforts resulted in more summonses issued and arrests made, but did little to resolve the overall problems of the complex.

The complex itself was generally in poor condition, with unrepaired apartments, overgrown landscaping, litter and abandoned vehicles creating uncomfortable living conditions for the residents. This created the perception that nobody cared and that the area was fair game for transients, youth gangs, alcoholics and drug dealers. It was not uncommon to see large groups of people loitering on the property grounds, drinking beer or using drugs. Nuisance problems would result, such as urinating in public (often in front of children), loud and obnoxious behavior toward other residents, littering, property damage and fighting. Many of those causing problems were juveniles, and while it is difficult to know how many were actually involved with youth gangs, many of them certainly wanted to be, and behaved as though they were.

 

Spurred into Action
Department statistics indicated that the complex accounted for a disproportionate number of calls for service. In 1994, for example, there were 484 calls for service in the San Juan complex, including everything from parking and traffic issues to attempted homicide. A total of 19 assaults, 10 harassments, 5 vehicle thefts and 11 criminal mischiefs were reported during the year. Yet statistics do not even begin to tell the whole story, as information received from the residents indicated that due to fear and mistrust, many criminal incidents simply went unreported. In the most violent incident of the year, a 16-year-old male shot another 16-year-old male in the face with a handgun. While this was a tragedy, it was also the event that seemed to galvanize the neighborhood to join forces with the police to address the issues.

The Police Department came to the realization that there had to be a better way to deal with the issues at the San Juan complex than by simply increasing enforcement activities. The environment had to be changed in order to change the criminal culture that had developed over the years. Encouraged and motivated by Chief Tom Koby, members of the department began to change their approach toward solving the problems at San Juan.

Problem identification in this instance came from the accumulated knowledge of the events described, as well as through traditional means. From crime statistics, discussions with San Juan community members and anecdotal information, we knew that there was a crime problem in the San Juan community. Furthermore, at community meetings attended by the Chief of Police and other department members, we were advised of the community concern with these issues, particularly in regard to the negative impact on the neighborhood’s youth.

 

The Ongoing Process
Analysis was, and continues to be, an ongoing process. The department began to work closely with community leaders and members who expressed concern with the problems at San Juan. This took place through a series of meetings in which problems were discussed and possible solutions were brainstormed. Members of the San Juan Learning Center (a city-funded educational and recreational program for disadvantaged children) also became involved in seeking ways to work with the police to improve the opportunities for the area’s youth. Others getting involved in the process included a neighborhood liaison person from the City Manager’s office, the San Juan management, the owners of San Juan, and the officers regularly working the San Juan area. From this analysis, the following information was obtained:

¶ Many of the people causing problems did live within the complex. Both adults and juveniles were identified as trouble-makers, as were some families.

¶ Those causing problems who were coming from outside the community were congregating at San Juan because they knew people who lived there or because of environmental factors that made it a comfortable, convenient place to hang out.

¶ There was real concern that known gang members were having an influence over the juveniles living at San Juan.

¶ Residents of San Juan were being victimized and felt somewhat helpless over the situation. They were fearful of retaliation if they came forward to report criminal activity and did not believe the police could help them. There was also some mistrust and frustration with past  responses by the police.

¶ There was a sense of cultural and economic isolation from the broader community, especially among the youth.

¶ Many youths were unsupervised during the day, particularly in the summer when school was out and parents were working.

¶ There were limited opportunities for youth, particularly in the summer when supervision was lacking.

¶ Street and lighting improvements that had been promised by the city in the past had not been completed.

¶ These problems had been ongoing for years.

¶ Many of the problems were related to the drinking and drug activity that took place almost on a daily basis in the open public areas of the complex.

¶ Residents were becoming increasingly upset and vocal about wanting some help from the police.

¶ There was a recognition by residents that they had to be more responsible in taking a proactive approach toward retaking control of their community, thus making it uncomfortable for troublemakers to feel safe in their activities, and a recognition that parents had a responsibility to provide proper supervision and guidance for their children.

 

Looking for Long-Term Impact
Over the years, the Police Department had responded to problems at the San Juan housing complex by increasing enforcement. While this had some initial effect, offenders would usually find ways to avoid police detection, and the initial impact would be short-lived. It became clear that any approach to dealing with the conditions at San Juan would have to be broader than simply increasing enforcement. Environmental and youth issues had to be addressed in order to have any hopes of a long-term impact on the problems at San Juan. In general, any response would have to be long-term rather than a quick fix.

Response to the issues at San Juan began in 1993 with an agreement to open a police annex on site. The management at San Juan agreed to convert a laundry room for this purpose, the goal being to provide a location where officers could meet and work with community members. It was also hoped that officers would spend more time at the location, giving residents greater access to the police. The annex was opened in early 1994.

Beat officers were asked to direct their enforcement efforts toward the concerns expressed by the residents during community meetings. Officers were also asked to spend more time at San Juan interacting with the community in a positive manner. Drug enforcement activities were increased, as narcotics officers conducted undercover operations at the complex. Management agreed to evict those who were arrested for drug dealing.

 

The Summer of Safety
In the spring of 1994, the department was able to obtain Federal grant funds from allocations to cities for combating juvenile violence. Combined with a private donation and some asset-forfeiture funds, the department was able to start a Summer of Safety program out of the San Juan Police Annex. The program was designed to partner police and youth to provide educational, recreational and community-service opportunities for at-risk youth, specifically those at the San Juan complex.

The Summer of Safety would provide guidance, education and participation in a constructive program, in an effort to overcome some of the negative influences faced by the youth, ultimately reducing the number of criminal complaints at the complex. Another major goal was to improve the relationship between the police and the young people of the community.

Eight youth leaders, ages 17 to 25, were hired to organize and supervise activities for the at-risk youth participating in the program. The youth leaders were paid for their work, and also received a $1,000 college scholarship for their involvement. Two officers were assigned to the 10-week program to provide coordination and supervision. Program activities included cleaning up areas of the housing complex, graffiti removal, sports, field trips, recreational activities, and police presentations. Both officers work closely with the youth and participated in the activities. Approximately 30 at-risk youth, ages 10 to 14, participated in the program.

While the program was considered a success for the kids that participated, it was not without its problems. As a first-year program, there were scheduling and coordination problems. We also experienced some trouble with a couple of the youth leaders, and acceptance of the program by department members was limited. Some residents, too, believed that the program was too limited. However, for those youths who participated, the feedback was positive. Residents also expressed appreciation for the new attention they were beginning to receive from the police.

Unfortunately, the program that summer did not prevent violence from occurring at the complex. In late summer, a 16-year-old shot another youth in the face. It was a traumatic event for the community, but it also served to wake up some residents to the fact that they had to get involved in order to save their children. They came to the police asking for help. Additional work needed to be done.

 

Howdy, Partner
A series of meetings was set up between the police, community members, city officials and the management of the San Juan complex. The first meeting took place in October 1994. Residents expressed their fears and frustration over the situation at San Juan, specifically the shooting of the 16-year-old. Issues and possible solutions were discussed at these meetings  a total of 34 issues during the October meeting alone. An agreement was reached that residents, management, city officials and the police all had to work cooperatively to solve some of the problems at the San Juan complex. As a result of these efforts, a number of commitments were made:

¶ Beat officers would increase enforcement efforts to address specific concerns of community members. These efforts would focus on public disorder-type crimes such as drinking in public, minor drug dealing, parking violations, abandoned vehicles, public urination, curfew violations, etc.

¶ Beat officers would make a commitment to provide more visible patrol, including spending more time at the police annex.

¶ Residents would provide more cooperation with the police, including a willingness to report troublemakers.

¶ Residents agreed to meet with local judges and prosecutors to voice their concerns over a perceived lack of support in sentencing violators from the complex.

¶ Management agreed to set rules governing unacceptable behavior and drinking in public areas for guests at San Juan.

¶ Residents agreed to solicit volunteers to work out of the police annex.

¶ The city agreed to complete street improvement projects such as paving, curbing and intersection improvements at 34th and Valmont, where residents and children had to cross the street.

¶ Civilian traffic investigators would focus on the parking problems cited by residents.

¶ There would be greater use of trespass laws to keep unwanted non-residents out of the complex.

¶ There would be continued support and utilization of community outreach programs that provide police-citizen interaction, such as the Summer of Safety.

 

Building on Success
Efforts continued through 1995 with a debriefing of the 1994 Summer of Safety program and planning for changes in the 1995 program. The number of police officers participating in the program would be greatly increased, and the program would be better organized and structured. A program supervisor was hired to operate the program, as were eight high school- or college-aged youth counselors to assist in implementing the program and supervising the participants. Police/youth activities included bicycle and pedestrian safety, bicycle registration, DARE training, alcohol/DUI education, gang education, rock-climbing and other sports activities. The program also involved the youth in community service projects such as graffiti removal, painting projects and trash cleanup.

The summer program concluded with a bicycle rodeo sponsored by the Police Department  and a local bicycle shop. Bicycles, helmets and other prizes were awarded to program participants.

Building on the success of the Summer of Safety program, the department received a Youth Crime Prevention and Intervention grant from the Governor’s Community Partnership Office. This grant was used to fund a partnership between the San Juan Learning Center, the Parks and Recreation Department and the Police Department to provide a youth after-school program. Officers continued to build their relationships with San Juan youth by regularly tutoring students and making presentations during the after-school program. The after-school program has allowed the department to maintain an ongoing connection with the students through the school year and into the Summer of Safety program for 1996.

In both 1995 and 1996, the department and San Juan management sponsored a San Juan Family Festival to kick off the summer season. The festival was organized and coordinated by one of our beat officers working in partnership with San Juan. The festival  a celebration of the San Juan community and its diverse cultures  is well attended and has further helped us cement our partnership with the community in making San Juan a better place to live.

The Summer of Safety program was again adjusted in 1996 to further improve its effectiveness and management. The program is now supervised by a Parks Department employee and a member from the San Juan Learning Center. The Summer of Safety has matured into a true partnership in which the police play a supporting role, rather than having full responsibility for the sponsorship and management of the program. Various officers participate in the program by putting on at least one three-hour presentation per week, on topics that include gangs, bike safety, crime scene investigation and drug education.

In conjunction with the program, beat officers have continued to provide additional presence and enforcement for the community, as well as work with the housing-complex management to identify problem tenants. Management has been very supportive in working with the police to eliminate on-site problems.

 

Sizing Up Results
The problems recognized and identified at the San Juan complex had been long-term in nature, becoming part of the complex’s culture. Therefore, it was also recognized that changing the culture required a long-term, problem-solving approach. Much progress has been made in reducing fear, improving police community relations, and making some environmental changes that have improved the quality of life for San Juan residents.

We are also starting to see a significant decrease in calls for service. The real impact is difficult to evaluate because of the distrust and frustration that existed prior to 1994. In our community meetings, we were told that there were many more criminal acts occurring than what were being reported because residents were fearful of retaliation or did not believe the police were willing to help them. Since then, residents have expressed greater satisfaction with the police and have been more willing to report incidents. Thus, there is some expectation that calls for service and reported crime may better reflect the actual number of incidents. As a result, a reduction in calls for service could be an indicator of a significant reduction in criminal activity.

Whether this is considered or not, calls for service have significantly decreased from 1994 levels. Other assessment measures indicate an even stronger positive impact on the San Juan community.

From a high of 106 documented criminal incidents in 1993, there has been a slight but steady decrease of reported criminal offenses at San Juan. Through June 1996, there have been 39 reported criminal incidents at San Juan and no serious assaults. If the numbers hold steady, the San Juan community will experience the lowest level of reported criminal incidents in the last five years.

Total calls for service are also down in 1996 from previous years. The total in 1994 at San Juan was 484; the following year, that total had dropped to 410. Through September 1996, there were 279 calls for service at the housing complex. At this rate,

total calls for service will be approximately 372, a 23-percent decrease from 1994 levels.

 

What People Are Saying
Officers working the San Juan area have reported a much greater sense of cooperation from the residents, who are more willing to talk with officers, provide information on criminal activities and identify suspects. This has resulted in a greater ability to investigate crime at the complex.

Officers have also reported that when they are on foot patrol in the area, children and adult residents will approach them just to say “Hi” or to talk. Officers regularly working the area have gotten to know many of the residents on a first-name basis.

In discussions with officers, they have stated that the atmosphere at San Juan is significantly improved over several years ago. Beat officers are no longer fearful of patrolling the area alone, even at night. Residents have expressed similar sentiments. They now talk about the cooperation and service they receive from “their” officers. In the spring of 1996, the San Juan community held an appreciation breakfast for members of the Police Department to thank them for their efforts at the housing complex.

This past April, a survey of San Juan youths was conducted as part of the Family Learning Center/Boulder Police Department After-School Program. The results of the survey were quite encouraging, indicating that police officers were well respected and trusted by the youngsters. Eighty percent of the respondents said that police officers can be trusted, while only 11 percent indicated that they could not be. Nearly three-quarters of those surveyed believed the police treat people with respect, and 69 percent indicated the police would help if called.

Even the local media have taken notice. Recent coverage of the changes taking place at San Juan has been very positive, with the police earning public praise for their work in the community.

 

The Work Continues
The problem-solving effort at San Juan Del Centro involved Police Department personnel at every level of the organization. From the Chief to the line officers, those involved in this project have worked hard to develop working relationships with San Juan community members. The greatest effort, however, has come from the officers working in the San Juan area and those participating in the After School and Summer of Safety programs.

While significant progress has been made at San Juan, the department is committed to continue working with residents to further improve the quality of life. Our long-term outlook is to build upon the partnerships and relationships already cultivated, to continue to change the culture of the housing complex in a positive manner, and to continue to have a positive influence on its youth.

(Mark R. Beckner is a veteran of over 18 years with the Boulder, Colo., Police Department, where he is currently the Watch II Patrol Commander. His commentary on police attitudes and courtesy appeared in the Nov. 30, 1993, issue of Law Enforcement News.)

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Published in Law Enforcement News
Dec. 15, 1996.
© 1996, LEN Inc.