Proposal To 'Seal Off' Projects Is Part Of A National Trend

January 16, 1991|By Robert Lee

Alderman Samuel Gilmer's proposal Saturday to "seal off" Annapolis' public housing projects from troublemakers follows a growing national trend.

Housing authorities in Philadelphia, Chicago, Newark and Boston have instituted controversial "sweep" or "secure" programs in recent years designed to protect residents of public housing by keeping dubious strangers out.

But while the four programs have met some degree of success in reducing crime, their costs -- about $150,000 a complex -- and invasion of privacy issues have dogged them. Annapolis Housing Authority's executive director, Harold Greene, said he is considering some milder variation of the gates, fences, guards and electronic identification systems installed in major cities. Those variations, he said, would bemore appropriate to Annapolis' relatively minor crime problem.

Most of the so-called "controlled access" programs to date have been placed in high-rises with huge common areas and elevators. Those include Philadelphia's 44 25-story developments and Chicago's 156 high-rises of various size.

"(Philadelphia's) 'Operation Secure' has been employed variously since the early '80s in response to the documented -- by crime statistics -- need for controlled access in public housing," said Philadelphia Housing Authority Police Chief Chico Cannon. "Typically, almost anybody can get into your buildings. If you allow that, you are inviting crime into your complex. Drug dealers and other criminals like to prey on the poor or weak who can't fight back."

Philadelphia's program, which funnels all of a project's residents and visitors through one entrance monitored by a 24-hour police guard, has had mixed success complicated by sporadic funding, Cannon said. The program costs approximately $150,000 a year for each unit.

"The really important thing is having an agency commitment," he said. "The officers alone can only secure the elevators and main lobby; it's up to the residents to take control of the individual floors."

Community relations, including the systematic organization of neighborhood block watches and the election of civic association leaders, are the cornerstone of Chicago's "Operation Clean Sweep."

"We apply peer pressure from the community to hold onto the control we establish inthe sweeps," Director of Public Affairs Katie Kelly said.

They also use security gates and guards. Later this year, they will begin fencing off the areas around row houses and communities spread out likethose in Annapolis. Like Philadelphia's program, Chicago's costs about $150,000 per complex, although it employs private security guards instead of police.

Chicago officials began "sweeping" through public housing communities, evicting squatters and illegal guests not registered with the housing authority, 2 years ago. Crime in those complexes has dropped 60 percent, truancy at nearby high schools has declined 50 percent and public library circulation has increased 800 percent, Kelly said.

Those practices, however, have involved the Chicago Housing Authority intwo suits with the American Civil Liberties Union. The civil rights group's challenges forced the authority to abandon searches and a midnight curfew that the agency wanted to impose on all visitors.

Since then, however, tenants councils in some projects have instituted their own curfews.

"Legally, it's a different matter if residents impose a curfew on themselves than if the Housing Authority imposes it," Kelly said.

Despite questions about invasion of privacy, the Chicago program has been held up as a model for other housing authorities by the National Association of Housing Redevelopment Officers. Both Newark, N.J., and Boston have adapted programs based on the Chicago model, and Kelly says the phone rings regularly with inquiries.

Greene, of the Annapolis Housing Authority, saidhe is familiar with Operation Clean Sweep, but had not heard of plans to expand it into row houses and smaller units.

The idea, he said, is worth investigating, but he balked at the idea of building walls around any of Annapolis' nine public-housing developments.

"My main problem with it is I don't want to give the perception of being locked up to our residents," Greene said.

Stuart Comstock-Gay, executive director of the ACLU, also balked at the concept.

"We'd be skeptical," he said. "Just because you're poor doesn't mean the state can place restrictions on your ability to move about freely. Nor doesit give the state the right to close the door on your friends. At first glance the plan looks like it would pose some problems. We'll look into it if it gets any further along."

Alderman Gilmer said his proposal at the news conference was just a suggestion meant to promote debate.

"I'm just talking about fences and one or two private guards," Gilmer said. "As it is, there's nothing stopping people from coming in. We have to sit down and see if it can work. Don't say off the top of your head, 'It won't work.' " Marquette, in northern Michigan, is reporting great success with its own small-town version of Chicago's Operation Clean Sweep.

Staff writer Paul Shread contributed to this story.

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