Monday, January 09, 2006

Otis White on Houston's crime and police situation

Regular readers know I like to pass along how the outside world perceives Houston, so here's Otis White's take from his Urban Notebook blog at Governing magazine (no permalink available, so here it is in full):

Who’s Responsible When Tenants Misbehave?
Turning Landlords into Police

Ask any cop. Crime isn’t spread evenly across a city; it’s concentrated in certain neighborhoods and apartment complexes. Which is why an idea making the rounds in Houston these days is so intriguing: Why not hold apartment owners responsible for the number of emergency calls coming from their buildings?

Here’s how it would work: The city would classify apartment complexes by incidents and numbers of units and rank them in tiers. As the number of emergency calls per unit climbs, so would the severity of sanctions. At the lowest level, apartment owners and managers might have to do nothing more than attend a public safety seminar. At the middle tiers, police officials might insist on security improvements, including private security guards. At the highest levels, property owners could be asked to post bonds that would be returned if incidents declined. Still having problems? The city could shut down the business.

The Houston city council is looking at this idea, which is already used in some cities in Washington State, because Houston is short on police officers and there’s concern about a recent spike in violent crime. (Fourteen homicides were reported over the Thanksgiving holiday period; about half of recent killings occurred at apartment complexes, police officials said.) “You’re tying up fire trucks ... you’re tying up police,” one council member said. “What we’re looking at is ways that we can free up officers.”

Not surprisingly, apartment owners aren’t wild about the idea. “How do I prevent the outside stray bullet from striking my window?” one complex manager asked the Houston Chronicle. “The problem is, I’m in a bad neighborhood.... I already paid taxes. The outside crime should be controlled by the city.”

Actually, outside observers agree: Asking apartment complex owners to do their part won’t work unless the city does its. And here Houston is falling behind; police staffing is considerably below the national average for big cities. “The priority has to be rebuilding the police force,” one lawyer who has served on public safety task forces told the Chronicle.
I'm all for this approach. It has elements of privatization and efficiency: rather than just adding more public-payroll cops, let the private market solve the problem in whatever they think the most cost-effective manner is (security cameras, fences, gates, guards, etc.), but the government holds them accountable for results.


At 8:47 AM, January 10, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

You gotta be kidding. Would you hold a developer responsible for crimes committed by people who purchase homes in his/her subdivision?

A landlord has a right to rent to whomever they want. The last thing we need is to make it harder for the poor and recent immigrants (because that's who this would target) to get housing. This is a recipe for an explosion in homelessness, and then perhaps more crime! Can we as a society extinguish the right for someone to obtain shelter because they possess a rap sheet?

At 9:08 AM, January 10, 2006, Blogger Owen Courrèges said...

I'm with anon on this one. Not only could this (justifiably) cause landlords to engage in profiling, I doubt it would have much effect on the overall crime rate. It would be like controlling illegal immigration by putting up sections of fencing at points on the Rio Grande where illegals frequently cross to control illegal immigration. You only shift the problem around; you don't actually stop crime.

To put it another way, do we really believe that having security guards and fencing around an apartment complex will dissuade potential criminals from committing crimes altogether, rather than just at a different location? Somehow I just wouldn't expect to hear this kind of statement: "I was thinking of shooting that guy, but if I can do it from the convenient location of that apartment complex, man, it just ain't worth it!

What will happen instead is that you'll make low-end housing more expensive. You'll also reduce crime in apartment complexes (not overall) thus improving the quality of the housing. Still, it's the equivalent of forcing car manufacturers to include an expensive safety feature that could just as easily be optional. It isn't pro-market; it's anti-market. It isn't respectful of the choices people make.

Worst of all, solutions like this allow tecnocrats like Mayor White to pretend to address the our dire police shortage, when they're actually scrambling for easy answers.

At 12:48 PM, January 10, 2006, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

> do we really believe that having security guards and fencing around an apartment complex will dissuade potential criminals from committing crimes altogether, rather than just at a different location?

Actually, yes. My understanding is that many crimes are "crimes of opportunity" - and many apt complexes create easy opportunities with poor lighting and security.

Yes, it may make apts slightly more expensive, just as fire codes and building codes do - but that's exactly why we have those codes: the market is not good at making those risky tradeoffs (people assume it will never happen to them), so govt sets a minimum standard.

The profiling problem is a legitimate concern (not that it's not already widespread with apt applications). The solution may be simply to not hold complexes responsible for certain crimes committed by their own residents where they weren't reasonably preventable. But crimes committed by outsiders coming into the complex are fair game for accountability.

At 10:46 PM, January 10, 2006, Blogger Owen Courrèges said...


That's probably true for some crimes, but it's my understanding that the impetus for this policy was the rash of gang violence at apartment complexes. Those don't strike me as "crimes of opportunity," nor do the people who commit them seem likely to be deterred by added security.

At 7:59 AM, January 11, 2006, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

I'm no expert on gang psychology or methods, but I'm thinking, if you have somebody you want to rough up or kill, and you know where he lives, and his complex is wide open with no security - well, then, you just go there and mess him up at 3am.

If it has fences and/or gates (ingress and egress are problematic), cameras, is well-lit (i.e. potential for identification and witnesses), and maybe has a security guard - well then, now you have to try to catch the guy when he's outside the complex. That involves a whole lot of waiting, following him in a car, and then he's probably headed to a public place with tons of witnesses. The hassle factor is an order of magnitude higher, and maybe by then you've calmed down and semi-forgotten why you're mad at the guy in the first place. The impulse crime of opportunity has been replaced by something requiring patience, planning, and persistance (known as "The 3 P's of the Criminal Mastermind" ;-) - which I'm thinking has to discourage quite a few criminals to the point they go, well, screw it, I might as well just go get drunk or get high.

At 8:53 AM, January 11, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

So let's say you have a house that has suffered past instances of crime. Are you going to require the homeowner to build a security fence, add lights, post guards, etc.?

And as we saw with public housing, if you put gates around a complex, you give gangs the opportunity to control access, and that's very bad! Especially if the crime is coming not from the outside but from the inside.

At 11:18 AM, January 11, 2006, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Actually, yes, if a single home is the source of many police calls, then there should be some action taken - maybe it's a crack house?

When a restaurant has multiple health code violations, there are sanctions - measures must be taken to ensure health and safety. When a building has multiple fire code violations (or, worse, fires), there are sanctions - measures must be taken to ensure fire safety. When a complex has multiple "crime violations", there should be sanctions - measures must be taken to reduce the risk of crime.

At 9:51 PM, January 11, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm going to have to side with Tory on this one. When the police give extra patrols and come out to an apartment complex a disproportionate amount they are consuming city resources at the expense of other taxpayers. Of course they ought to pay more for extra services.

If the police provided all the security an apartment complex needed what incentive would the property owner have to upgrade their security? Should we place an officer outside a jewelry store free of charge just because the owner doesn't want to buy a lock?

I find it hard to believe that a complex will become crime ridden by sheer coincidence and not from systematic neglect.

At 11:12 PM, January 11, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Should we place an officer outside a jewelry store free of charge just because the owner doesn't want to buy a lock?

No, but should we force a jewlery store to take steps they don't want to take if they've been hit by crime at a rate above some bureaucratically-defined threshold?

I find it hard to believe that a complex will become crime ridden by sheer coincidence and not from systematic neglect.

Ever hear of a bad neighborhood? Or a declining neighborhood? Suppose you owned one of the swinging singles apartment complexes in the Gulfton area that was full of monied young professionals in the 70s. Is it your fault as a landlord that the entire area has become Houston's hottest crime spot? And do you tax the poor because they tend to require more police services, because any increased expenses for the landlord will be passed directly to the tenants in the form of increased rent.

At 9:03 PM, January 14, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

No more excuses, no more complaining.
Just get a plan and get it done.

uh, well said?


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