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Community policing and cleanup efforts look great … on the surface.

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City officials in charge of maintaining and policing local communities are looking for a few good men and women. The program is called Community Based Services. The local model is borrowed from Des Moines, Iowa, which borrowed its concepts from similar efforts in New York City.

The gist is this — cleaning up neighborhoods becomes a natural deterrent to disorder and crime, which is good. City officials, seeking to use law enforcement and public works dollars efficiently, need help.

Participants are rewarded with clean streets, more visitors, fewer victims of crime, and continuing community growth.

Everybody participates, and everybody wins. 

At least that’s how it looks on the surface.

Digging deeper into the theories behind such citizen-driven efforts casts some doubt on the glowing status of these programs, the results of which are only now being properly studied in other cities. Recent reports from think tanks at Harvard and other universities, for example, have called into question whether such programs have as much impact as everyone thinks. And if the programs do work, critics ask whether efforts benefit everyone in the community or a select few.

In Tacoma, the Community Based Services program is still in its infancy, in public policy years anyway. Taking a good hard look at efforts at home and elsewhere might provide local officials and citizens an opportunity to do some nurturing — maybe do it better than the rest. Mistakes made in New York, San Francisco, Paris and other cities that have adopted this model don’t have to happen here.

You love to be innovative, Tacoma.

Here’s your chance.

Power to the people

According to the program’s Web site, Tacoma’s Community Based Services effort is a relatively new way of providing services that highlights community strengths and fixes problems that prevent neighborhoods from connecting and thriving.

The concept emerged from efforts in New York during the 1990s, which spawned similar programs all over the country. Programs recruit neighborhood watch groups and everyday citizens to help police stamp out crime and other impediments to community safety and growth.

When these programs began, aggressive efforts to eliminate graffiti, panhandling, prostitution, litter, and other scourges had grown too large for city officials to manage with dwindling budgets and soaring populations. By focusing on cleaning up key areas with the help of enlisted citizens, city officials hoped to eliminate crime through management of public space. By making public areas active and pristine, framers of early programs hoped that criminals and other ne’er-do-wells would simply disappear rather than having to be jailed, which eats tax dollars that could be put into other community programs or police salaries, for example.

In Tacoma, teams of officials work with community and business partners to address issues of safety, housing, street design, neighborhood planning, commercial revitalization, crime, and other priorities. More specific goals are established by different community organizations, depending on problems perceived by neighborhood residents. One designated area in East Tacoma, dubbed Jennie Reed for the school of the same name, has identified such issues as speeding, an “apartments-problem, directly and indirectly associated with drug dealings and overall nuisance,” drug dealing, and infrastructure issues including damaged sidewalks and curbs and unpaved streets.

Jennie Reed is one of the original CBS areas. It is bounded by South 38th Street, M Street and Interstate 5. Others include a stretch of Tacoma Avenue; the Edison area, which is bordered by 56th Street and 66th Street, Washington Avenue and Oaks Avenue; and Bryant, which runs from South Sixth Avenue to South Ninth Street and from Sprague to Yakima.

CBS Coordinator Lisa Wojtanowicz says that successes in these areas have encouraged other community groups to establish their own neighborhood clean-up crews and that several areas in East Tacoma and South Tacoma have been folded into areas officially covered by the program. That official recognition provides CBS affiliates with additional resources, most of which are provided by the city to support projects. The city might provide dumpsters and pickup for garbage collected during a weekend clean-up effort, for example. Criteria for designation as an official CBS group are fairly simple. 

“The areas that we pick tend to have a higher incidence of crime and blight, but also have community members that are willing to work on solving the problems,” says Wojtanowicz.

Efforts by these groups run the gamut: from creating events, to monitoring crime and safety, to encouraging community development, to improving streetscapes and addressing traffic problems. Some efforts aim to influence and, in some cases, create public policy that affects the whole city. Newcomer group the Lincoln LAWGS (Lincoln Area Watch Group) helped push for a citywide ban on panhandling — one of the most sweeping and aggressive of its kind, anywhere. During 2006 and 2007, members of the group stood at 38th Street and Pacific Avenue holding signs that read “Don’t enable their addictions. Give to charities, not panhandlers. Help make my neighborhood safe.” Group organizers claimed that panhandling leads to drug deals, prostitution, litter, and public defecation — an assertion that makes up in emotional appeal what it significantly lacks in supporting data. Organizers told stories of parents who were afraid to walk the streets because their children were afraid of being approached by “dirty poor people” or because they might see someone peeing on a bush. That was enough. Earlier this year, the LAWGS received a City of Destiny Award for its efforts.

When asked whether there was an equal amount of effort put toward ministering to the homeless, working to raise funds for local shelters, volunteering at local soup kitchens, or any similar humanitarian effort, Wojtanowicz was not able to produce any examples. She was aware of some members of CBS groups who spend time volunteering at a local shelter for homeless women and said that community service would be a fine way for CBS groups to spend their energy.

Service to the poor and needy in Tacoma was not included in any of the goals listed by the original four CBS groups. Literature on Lincoln LAWGS and other groups show no signs of interest in good old-fashioned service to the poor and underprivileged at first glance. If there are good deeds afoot, they certainly don’t appear to be as grand or fervent as efforts to make things pretty or to get rid of what a speaker at a meeting in East Tacoma referred to as “the people we don’t want.”

Broken Windows

The theoretical core of citizen action programs such as CBS is known as Broken Windows, which you’ll hear public policy makers use to justify all sorts of city programs and laws.

Broken Windows is the brainchild of Rutgers University Professor and Harvard Fellow George Kelling and Pepperdine University’s Ronald Reagan Professor of Public Policy and UCLA Professor Emeritus James Wilson. The pair coined the term in an Atlantic Monthly article in 1982, which invited public policy makers to imagine a world where fixing broken windows was a solution to complex social problems such as crime, poverty and community degradation.

“Consider a building with a few broken windows,” the article reads. “If the windows are not repaired, the tendency is for vandals to break a few more windows. Eventually, they may even break into the building, and if it’s unoccupied, perhaps become squatters or light fires inside. Or consider a sidewalk. Some litter accumulates. Soon, more litter accumulates. Eventually, people even start leaving bags of trash from take-out restaurants there or breaking into cars.”

A few more leaps of logic and faith and a theory emerges — that fixing windows and adopting zero-tolerance policies against vandalism and other “crimes of disorder” would deter low-level crime, which would, in turn, help eliminate more serious crimes. The deterrence approach proposed by Kelling and Wilson was seen as a way to free up municipal budgets and cut crime in the absence of sufficient law enforcement funding. Cash-strapped politicians loved the idea because it created a way to free up city funds. It’s a lot cheaper to make examples of a few ne’er-do-wells and have citizens and public officials clean up neighborhoods than it is to pay to jail legions of petty criminals, they reasoned.

New York City was the first to really test the theory. City officials passed laws, ramped up law enforcement against crimes such as subway turnstile jumping and graffiti, enlisted neighborhood groups and dedicated large sums of money to train buffers, for example, which cleaned graffiti from public transportation trains. War was declared on panhandlers, truant children, prostitutes, public inebriates, people living under bridges, and people making too much noise.

Citizens of New York celebrated the new policies and jumped at the chance to help New York Police Chief William Bratton “reclaim the public spaces of New York.”

Today, analysis of early data used to support these programs has come under intense scrutiny. Researchers at Harvard and other universities have picked apart studies looking for some direct link between community service programs and crime reduction. Most of them — aside from Kelling and Wilson — have come up short. Critics such as Bernard Harcourt, for example, noted that during the same time New York was experiencing dramatic reductions in crime, other cities such as Boston, Houston, Los Angeles, and San Diego achieved similar reductions — some proportionally more significant than in New York. In his book, The Illusion of Order, Harcourt also notes that many of the cities that kept pace with New York had radically different policies and policing methods in place. The two studies that attempt to draw a link between Broken Windows-based community efforts and crime reduction fail miserably, he contends.

Other critics ask whether crime was reduced or whether criminals simply moved on to commit the same crimes elsewhere.

Perhaps the most significant and oft-repeated critique of the Broken Windows approach is that it doesn’t really approach many widely accepted foundations of  criminal activity and blight — poverty, broken and underfunded social service programs, and community apathy.

Translation: polishing an apple with a rotten core doesn’t make it taste any better.

Harcourt urges communities using the Broken Windows theory as a policy guide to consider such concerns.

The bright side

It would be unfair to suggest that Tacoma’s CBS program is invalidated by some shaky theoretical underpinnings. Ask anyone living or working for very long near Tacoma Avenue about how much has changed since CBS began and they’ll tell you it’s changed a lot — and mostly for the better. Calls for police service on Tacoma Avenue have been dramatically reduced with some of that reduction credited to CBS efforts and some to increased police enforcement there, says Wojtanowicz.

It also is worth noting that clean-up programs and citizen watch efforts in Tacoma are less like efforts in New York than they are like efforts in San Francisco and San Diego, where more resources were allocated to tackling social problems. In San Diego and San Francisco, citizen cooperation with police was emphasized rather than passing more stringent laws and increasing enforcement. Crime reductions there outpaced those seen in New York and Los Angeles, which used more traditional and aggressive methods. 

Setting aside Tacoma’s recent flurry of efforts to criminalize homelessness, a recently passed noise ordinance and zero-tolerance graffiti policy, early local efforts have produced what is perceived by many to be direct, dramatic and positive results. Many neighborhoods are cleaner, safer and healthier because of CBS, says Wojtanowicz.

That means people are more likely to move in, spend money at local businesses and contribute to the community. It also means that the people living there can enjoy life outside their homes, supporters contend.

Local officials, meanwhile, will take a look at successes and pitfalls of Tacoma’s CBS program in September.

Among issues already being discussed is the apparent lack of diversity among participants in Tacoma’s CBS programs. A recent East Side meeting at Lincoln High School was well populated with police officers and middle-class white people, but people from the East Side’s Latino, Asian, African-American, and Eastern European communities were notably absent.

City Councilwoman Marilyn Strickland recalls going to a Latino Parent night at the same venue the night before CBS participants met. When she attended the CBS meeting the next night, she was struck by the absence of many of the obviously engaged members of the Latino community who had been there the night before. The experience encouraged Strickland to begin asking how the city or citizens groups could increase outreach efforts to all members of the communities served by CBS.

“I’ve been at that auditorium for talent shows and events, and the audience that night did not look like the community I have seen before,” says Strickland.

In the group’s defense, Wojtanowicz says that mailers were sent to every household in the area, and the community organizers promoted the event heavily. Unlike a recent reminder about the illegality of fireworks in Tacoma, which was scripted in several languages, mailers for the Lincoln gathering were all sent in standard American English, however. Though it may have been an understandable oversight, Wojtanowicz suggested that insufficient outreach efforts are among issues being reviewed by CBS organizers.

Veteran community organizer Marty Campbell, who was peripherally involved in establishing Tacoma’s CBS program, says that there are plenty of ways to reach out to a more diverse audience.

“Reaching diverse groups of people requires diverse strategies,” says Campbell. “If you do a mailing and don’t get a diverse audience, change your tactics. It may mean going door to door. Or it might mean recruiting neighborhood leaders to help. Or you can ask people from diverse communities about how to reach different groups.”

Strickland suggests tapping newspapers that cater to specific communities and making face-to-face contact with potential recruits.

Perhaps most importantly, Strickland emphasizes her strong support for the CBS program amidst her concerns. Strickland says she believes in Tacoma’s citizens and their desire to do the best they can to build community.

“When I think about Community Based Services, I think about people getting involved to make a community safe and attractive. So far, they’ve done a great job, and it’s great that there are so many people involved,” she says. “But we always have to work at improvement. That doesn’t mean we’re criticizing what we’ve achieved — just that we can always do better.”

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