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A Cleanup Will Help Fight Crime

By Stan Simpson
February 16, 2005

Patrick Harnett - a few hours after a spate of shootings resulted in Hartford's first homicide of the year - walked toward the oversize map in his office. The police chief was making a case for how his reorganized department would hold commanders more accountable for reducing crime while giving them more authority to run newly designed districts.

A similar change - tried in the mid-1970s and again in the mid-1990s -didn't take root. This one won't either - not without a comprehensive plan to deal with so-called quality-of-life concerns such as debris-strewn sidewalks, blighted properties and abandoned vehicles.

Where you find those things you'll usually find crime festering. And the reality for police officers is that cleaning up blight and litter is not their job. Until the city gets a cohesive plan to tackle the eyesores in these neighborhoods, the conditions there won't change, even if there is a spike in arrests.

"If everyone just did their job, we wouldn't have to worry about that," Harnett said, echoing comments made by Miami Police Chief John Timoney, a panelist at a recent city forum on reducing crime. The Harnett-Timoney line says that if you let the police focus on arresting bad guys, and if public works and educators do their jobs, then you have a healthy neighborhood. But none of this co-mingling stuff.

Albert Ilg, who filled in as an interim city manager for Hartford from December 2001 to August 2002, saw otherwise.

"It's the quality-of-life crimes that deteriorate a neighborhood and affect far more people" than major crimes, he said. "Where there are blighted buildings and rats, people don't move in - and people leave. The whole neighborhood becomes blighted and unhealthy. It has a cascading effect."

Ilg last year delivered a consultant's report, which was largely ignored, to the city on how to improve government. His police recommendations included breaking the city up into multiple neighborhood precincts, which would include officers and housing and rodent inspectors.

Two years earlier, Keith Chapman, a former Newington town manager, was an adviser to Ilg in Hartford. Chapman spearheaded the city's Operation Clean Sweep, which sectioned the city into three areas run by teams from public works and licensing and inspection. Over the next few months, Chapman says 2,100 tons of garbage and 2,200 junk cars were removed from lots, streets and parks.

In an area off Putnam Street, one lot was so clean that neighborhood kids began to play there again.

"It was actually running pretty well," Chapman said in a telephone conversation from Florida Tuesday. "But as with any plan, it needed constant correction and follow-up. But my time was up."

Once Ilg and Chapman left their temporary posts, their clean sweep plans went by the wayside. Staffing shortages were blamed.

Harnett's reorganization calls for divvying up the city into four districts, with two zones per district. Deputy chiefs, captains and lieutenants in the districts will have the clout to deploy resources to their neighborhoods.

Monthly COMPSTAT meetings - where police supervisors are grilled about the previous month's crime data and what they did in response - will continue. COMPSTAT can be extremely useful, as it was in New York City.

But there ought to be a COMPSTAT for public works, licensing and inspections and the fire and health departments. How many complaints are registered about abandoned buildings, littered streets, potholes and junk cars?

A 2002 residents' survey said 52 percent of those polled identified crime as a "very serious" problem in the city. Of that 52 percent, 46 percent specifically identified issues such as abandoned buildings and vehicles and unkempt properties.

Another idea would be to simply invest in a few cameras. Take monthly snapshots along the city's most troubling spots, then have the appropriate supervisors explain why the pictures don't reflect change.

To the city's credit, next year it hopes to offer a 311 telephone response number to deal with routine complaints, including rundown buildings, rodents and questions about back taxes. The computerized system would track calls and the follow-through. Callers would be given a call back with the status of their complaint, says Susan McMullen, the city's director of constituent's service.

The cost of the 311 operation would be about $2.5 million. Hopefully, there won't be any budget snags in getting it done.

In Hartford, nuisance complaints are a real emergency.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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