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.
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