Making 'the projects' safe

Reuben M. Greenberg

January 14, 1992|By Reuben M. Greenberg

IN MOST American cities, public housing projects are the most dangerous part of town. Not in Charleston, S.C., where I am police chief. We have learned that public housing is one of the easiest places to achieve sharp reductions in crime.

In Charleston, 8 percent of our population lives in public housing. As in most cities, these areas used to be rife with crime. Now, public housing residents and their visitors are responsible for only 1.8 percent of Charleston's armed robbery, rape, homicide, assault, larceny, arson, and auto theft crimes, and 2.6 percent of minor offenses. In the past seven years, only one person has been killed in the projects, and in 1990 we made only six drug arrests.

When I became police chief in 1982, I resolved to give public housing residents the same kind of protection that residents of private housing often enjoy.

After winning the cooperation of the American Civil Liberties Union, neighborhood legal assistance programs, and the housing authority, we decided to screen tenants for public housing. Public housing officials already excluded applicants whose income or assets were too high to qualify for subsidy. But there were no restrictions on convicted felons. The only place in our city where people had to live with convicted criminals was public housing.

We didn't try to keep out shoplifters or people who had been arrested for drunk driving. We did exclude people who were recently convicted -- and I want to stress convicted -- of armed robbery, burglary, sexual assault, arson, or child molestation.

The naysayers said that this program was not going to succeed, because out of the 8,000 residents, we would have to evict 3,000 to 4,000 people to make the neighborhood "safe." We were prepared to do that, but we have had to evict only about 80 individuals or families from public housing in Charleston during a six-year period.

Here's why: public housing tenants stopped engaging in criminal activity. While arrest had not prevented them from committing crimes -- after all, they could be out of jail within four hours -- not having a place to sleep or live had a tremendous impact. Screening also encouraged people to turn in family members who were involved in prostitution, illegal drugs, and liquor, and various other violations, because the entire household was placed at risk of being evicted.

We also decided to treat people in public housing as if they lived in a country club or an upscale apartment house. No outsider can enter a fancy apartment house unless a tenant gives permission to the doorman. So, at 7:00 on Saturday nights, we set up a roadblock in front of a Section 8 housing project called Bayside where there was a serious drug problem. Nobody was allowed into the complex without permission from the tenant he had come to visit. An officer would call the tenant on a cellular phone; if there was no phone in the apartment, the officer would escort the visitor to the tenant's door.

We discovered several things in doing this. First, many tenants claimed they didn't know their visitors. At least they didn't want to let the police know they knew them. Second, the vast majority of people who came to Bayside at night were non-residents -- criminal predators who came to engage in illegal activities. Third, some of the visitors to Bayside were people we had been looking for. As one officer called the person the visitor had come to see, another would check his license plate number in our computer system. We arrested a murderer, burglars, drunk drivers, and many drug dealers.

In almost no time criminal activities at Bayside dropped off dramatically. Our checkpoints became less frequent as criminals got the message that they were not welcome there. We still act as doormen about once a month, just to make our point. For the most part, though, our crime problem at Bayside has been solved.

We reduced crime in public housing without massive increases in manpower, money, or other resources, and without overburdening the criminal justice system. Criminals, just like everyone else, respond to market forces. We just needed to show them that, literally, crime doesn't pay.

The writer is police chief of Charleston, S.C. This essay is excerpted from an article in the Winter 1992 issue of Policy Review, the Heritage Foundation's quarterly journal.

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