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Back to Archives | Back to December 2006 Contents 

Portland Police Bureau: The Downtown Livability Project

By Jeff Myers



n Portland, Oregon, the police department was faced with a system that had overcrowded jails, overextended parole and probation officers, and few prosecutions for property crimes. In the downtown area, crime data verified that a small population of offenders was committing an inordinately high percentage of drug offenses and drugrelated property crimes, commonly referred to as livability crimes, in a small downtown core area of Portland. The offenders typically have drug addictions and in some cases underlying mental health issues.

After analysis of the incidents of crime and the offending population, police designed a comprehensive series of programs to solve the problems on several levels. The programs created partnerships among government departments, social service providers, and criminal justice agencies to eliminate livability problems in the targeted area.

The partnership uses the principles of community policing to identify and analyze neighborhood livability issues and develop strategies to impact those issues. Over the last four years, these programs were introduced at little or no cost.

The programs included elements of crime prevention education, crime prevention through environmental design, enhanced communication with parole and probation, and rehabilitation and enforcement. The downtown livability project is composed of the car prowl crime prevention program; the transportation right-of-way camping cleanup program; the alcove abatement program; the parole and probation EPR mask program; and the neighborhood livability crime enforcement program.

Crime Prevention: This strategy was an educational campaign designed to make people working and living in the target area aware of the prevalent property crimes related to drug offenders and to educate the citizens on how to reduce their exposure to becoming victims.

Communication with Parole and Probation: This strategy involved the use of computer technology to enable patrol officers to instantaneously provide parole and probation officers with documented record of their clients’ contacts with police and thereby make it easier for parole and probation officers to monitor their clients.

Rehabilitation and Enforcement: This strategy was designed to reduce recidivism rates by creating a no-tolerance environment that makes it so difficult for offenders to continue their cycle of drug offenses and drug-related property crimes that they become amenable to social services that the city provides.

In order to accomplish this crime reduction effort, police sought and obtained the approval from many stakeholders. The police department had to win support from elected officials, the district attorney, the Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office, the city attorney’s office, social service agencies, neighborhood associations, and business owners. In addition, alternative methods to fund parts of the project were needed.

Car Prowl Crime Prevention Program
Car prowls are larcenies from motor vehicles and of motor vehicle parts and accessories. Three types of car prowlers were identified from statistics and police experience: an indigent alcoholic who will break a $500 window or door lock to steal 50 cents to apply toward the purchase of an alcoholic beverage; youth gangs that steal car parts to trade among themselves for use on their own vehicles; and drug-addicted criminals that steal any item of value (including documents to be used in identity theft) to facilitate their drug habits.

In 2002 an ambitious car prowl reduction program was initiated. Realizing that many people using drugs were driving up the car prowl statistics, and that the clearance rate for these crimes averaged a mere 1 percent, the first step was a crime prevention campaign. This program was implemented initially as a pilot program in one downtown neighborhood, but after a proven sustainable record of 50 percent reductions, it was expanded to include all five downtown neighborhoods with similar success. The program consisted of the following strategies: neighborhood presentations; surveys of high-risk vehicles and mass mailings to owners; flyer campaigns; crime prevention signs; and billboard and bus sign advertising funded by local corporate sponsors.

Initially, presentations were made at neighborhood association meetings to ensure community support for the project. After those meetings, 2,000 vehicles in the target neighborhood were surveyed to identify the percentage of high-risk vehicles. High-risk vehicles were defined not by items left inside or vehicles that were deemed valuable by vehicle owners but by items that, through analysis of car prowl police reports, were deemed valuable to car prowlers. This and subsequent surveys revealed that 500 vehicles, or 25 percent of vehicles in the targeted neighborhood, were at high risk. In other words, the neighborhood was rich with targets for a prolific car prowler. For each of these high-risk vehicles, a program-specific form was initiated that detailed time, date, location, license plate, and a description of specific items visible inside the vehicle that made it high risk. Rather than leaving these survey forms on the car windshield, and thus marking one out every four cars for the car prowler, the individual survey, a letter, and a program specific brochure was mailed by the police department to the registered owner. The crime prevention message was to educate the public to remove items identified as valuable to car prowlers from their vehicles.

After the surveys were mailed to the owners of high-risk vehicles, a flyer campaign was conducted. The goal of the flyer campaign was to place a crime prevention Crime Prevention through Environmental Design: This strategy was developed to reduce the number of places where offenders can trespass and hide in order to facilitate the purchase, sale, and use of drugs. flyers on the windshield of every vehicle parked in the designated neighborhood. Those flyers were designed with the use of the nationally recognized McGruff character with permission of the National Crime Prevention Council. Next, signs were placed in areas identified as having the highest concentration of displaced car prowl activity. Finally, with local corporate sponsorship, crime prevention information was placed on billboards and local bus signs in the targeted area.

The result of this campaign was a 50 percent reduction of car prowls in the targeted areas. In addition, seeing these results, other precincts took these ideas and implemented them in their own areas with similar results. The surveys and flyer campaigns are now conducted regularly when there is an increase in car prowls, such as during the holiday seasons. The crime prevention sign program is also being expanded to include parking stations that have replaced traditional parking meters and did not exist during the time of the campaign.

Expenses for this project were minimal to include printing and postage costs (the printing expense was often shared by the individual neighborhoods). Officers can obtain statistics from the police department’s statistical analysis unit regularly and the crime prevention analysts in the precincts can map car prowls throughout the city to pinpoint areas and evaluate the effectiveness of these campaigns for periods of time following their completion.

Transportation Right-of-Way Camping Cleanup Program
Statistics developed from the car prowl crime prevention program revealed a pattern of displacement of car prowls to an area affected by poor environmental design to prevent crime. These areas were transportation right-of-ways owned by the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT), the Portland Department of Transportation (PDOT), and the Union Pacific Railroad. Cleanup and environmental design efforts were concentrated on the highway and railroad properties where individuals lived illegally or conducted illegal activity, as evidenced by discarded needles, alcoholic beverage bottles, syringes, and leftover remnants from car prowls. These properties had been cleaned up many times through the years by highway workers, social service agencies, and law enforcement. But these efforts only temporarily displaced people and activity from the targeted area. In an initial pilot program to test the efficacy of a crime prevention through environmental design (CPTED) program applied to these properties, police focused attention on a small parcel of ODOT right-of-way. This property, which featured both business and residential areas, was the site of numerous drug offenses and drug-related property crimes. Working with various departments of ODOT, law enforcement cleaned the area, cut back vegetation to eliminate hiding places, repaired and augmented fences, and posted no trespassing signs in both Spanish and English. An analysis of these efforts over a four-month period to test the pilot’s efficacy found that not only did car prowls in the area drop 59 percent but all reported crime, including violent crime, fell significantly.

As evidenced by the analysis of the CPTED pilot over a period of time, the reduction of crime was not sustainable without an effective enforcement component. Working closely with ODOT, PDOT, and Union Pacific Railroad, officials mapped areas that the public was not allowed to enter or remain in—other than to pass through on designated highways, roads, and sidewalks, pursuant to Oregon Revised Statute 164.245. These maps were incorporated into a form that gave police officers the ability to formally warn an offender (as required by the district attorney for subsequent prosecution) upon their first offense. Included on this form is a referral section to social service agencies that provide resources surrounding homelessness outreach services, English as a second language, mental health, drug and alcohol treatment, and youth services. The form is in Spanish and English and includes photos and a map of the designated areas on the back.

This form gives officers the ability to document that an offender has been given notice surrounding the properties. Before the creation of the form, officers would approach a person and give a verbal warning without knowing they had often already been given numerous similar warnings by other officers. In addition, the Police Bureau Data Processing Division created a data entry system and a database to store pertinent information about persons who had received warnings that could be accessed from a computer in every officer’s patrol vehicle. Now officers can check the Portland Police Data System to determine whether an offender has received an exclusion notice and thereby take enforcement action as necessary.

Expense to the Police Bureau for this program was minimal to include the price of printing the forms. Efforts were heavily concentrated on building relationships with ODOT, PDOT, and Union Pacific Railroad officials to expand the scope of this project to include the entire downtown. This program has resulted in a marked reduction of the criminal activity along these right-of-ways. Alcove Abatement Program

Portland’s downtown area has many businesses that have alcoves. The private business alcoves were providing a covered and discreet area for people who want to participate in area drug and drug-related property crimes. Business owners routinely called police about finding used needles, empty alcohol bottles, stolen property, and garbage in these alcoves.

The transportation right-of-way campaign cleanup program with the police enforcement programs along transportation right-of-ways displaced a number of offenders searching for alternative secure places to commit drug-related crimes. Traditional law enforcement methods to abate these problems in private business alcoves involved painting over graffiti, cleaning the alcove, and having the business owner sign a trespass agreement with the police bureau for enforcement. Due to budgetary constraints that limited booking requirements at the county jail, the offenders who were contributing to these problems in the alcoves were not bookable. Therefore, citations were routinely issued that had little or no consequence for the offender. In the absence of a reasonable deterrent, traditional policing methods were ineffective.

Police found a vendor who could supply and install reinforced gates on the private business alcoves. The gates, which met the aesthetic standards of the surrounding neighborhood, open solely from the inside, allowing egress from the fire door inside but limiting access into the alcoves. The vendor’s fee was $585 for each gate. Most property owners agreed to purchase the gates at this price. But the city’s permit fees for each gate totaled $1,800. Many business owners were willing to spend $585 on the gate, but they were not willing to spend an additional $1,800 in city permit fees. The police bureau and the city attorney’s office persuaded the Bureau of Departmental Services (BDS) to waive the fees in the interest of crime deterrence and public safety.

The first gate at an alcove was erected as a trial in 2004. The result was a permanent abatement to a problem that neighbors contend has existed for more than 10 years, problems that led them to routinely initiate police calls for service. With the cooperation of BDS, the city attorney’s office, and the police bureau, the program continued. Police have helped discover a new solution to an old problem and can demonstrate the results to business owners. Business owners are pleased with this unique response to this problem, and there are now fewer places for individuals to conduct drug business or use drugs, vandalize property, and leave garbage and biohazardous material. This idea cost the city no money and only a nominal amount for property owners.

Parole and Probation EPR Mask Program
Officers often came in contact with individuals who were on post-prison supervision through the Multnomah County Community Justice Department’s Division of Adult Probation and Parole. But there was no active communication system to discuss the client’s behavior with their probation/parole officer. To solve this communication problem, the Portland Police Bureau of Emergency Communications created an electronic form that officers can use on their mobile data terminals (MDTs) in their police vehicles. A pilot project began in June 2003, and the rollout of the final project to all police vehicles occurred in December 2003, throughout Multnomah County.

Before the link was made, parole and probation officers had to spend considerable time and days to determine if their clients had any police contact. Now, whenever officers run a record check on an individual that returns that they are a parole or probation client, a mask appears on their MDTs. The mask automatically defaults to time, date, location, officer, officer’s DPSST number, offender information, and the offender’s state identification number. The officer then has only to check one of four boxes that apply to virtually all clients, whether drugs, alcohol, weapons, or a sex offender with minor were involved. Next is a line to describe new charges, and finally space for a narrative to document the nature of the contact. Officers cannot clear the stop until they complete the mask, and after submission the information instantaneously appears on the appropriate parole and probation officer’s computer screen.

Parole and probation officers now receive, on average, 500 documented reports daily of police contacts describing their clients’ behavior. Considering that most parole and probation officers have as many as 75 clients each, they can better manage their clients now based upon this information. This additional information can be used to apply a series of sanctions ranging from double urinalysis to work programs to incarceration. The system needed only a mere modification to current software and did not require any investment by the city.

Neighborhood Livability Crime Enforcement Program
The last element of the comprehensive downtown livability project was to form the Neighborhood Livability Crime Enforcement Program (NLCEP). NLCEP began in June 2003, as a pilot program in central precinct, and was designed to affect a relatively small number of offenders who were committing an inordinately high percentage of drug and drug-related property crimes in the city’s downtown. Due to the corrections department’s budgetary constraints, most of the crimes these offenders were committing were not bookable offenses. Therefore, the hypothesis of this program was that a combination of short periods of detention, treatment for chemical dependency or mental illness, and community service sentences would result in a reduction in recidivism rates.

To implement NLCEP, local business and neighborhood associations, the district attorney, the city attorney’s office, the community court, the office of neighborhood involvement, and the Multnomah County Detention Center all joined in a partnership with the police department. To identify the target population of offenders for this program, analysts conduct blind data runs concentrating on defined livability crimes--larceny, motor vehicle theft, forgery and fraud (to encompass identity thefts), drugs, and violation of Portland’s drug-free zone ordinance--for three-month periods in the five downtown neighborhoods. This results in a list of the most chronic offenders in descending order. It is interesting to note that the number one individual on the first list had 46 arrests given those parameters within a three-month period.

Prior to implementing the targeted enforcement program, an outside advisory group reviewed the analysis. This step was taken to ensure that no unintended racial profiling existed in the data collection methodology. The advisory group concurred with the analysis and the project began with 35 designated repetitive offenders.

By working with the county jail officials, police reached an agreement that whenever probable cause existed for any crime (to include primarily these nonbookable offenses), these targeted offenders would be booked into jail. Working with local social service providers, the 35 designated offenders were also given priority status after arrest in drug and alcohol and mental health screening programs. Finally, the community court judge agreed to provide community service sentencing to these designated people.

The program concentrates on these designated people for a three-month period. At the end of the three months, new data results in a new list, but anyone who’s ever been on the original list of 35 remains on a master list and is eligible for future treatment.

Initially, the concept was to work through the established downtown community court to obtain referrals for social services. Due to county budgetary constraints, this failed, and recidivism rates increased. Therefore, police enlisted the help of the county’s director of mental health and addictions. A protocol was adopted whereby counselors intervened at the jail immediately after offenders were booked and gave priority status to these offenders for social services whenever possible. Recidivism rates immediately dropped 32 percent.

In the middle of the program (October 2004), the county director who was supporting this program with social services resigned, and the social service resources disappeared. Recidivism rates immediately rose to former highs. But in November 2004 the Portland Office of Neighborhood Involvement launched Access, a street intervention program, to manage the social service component of this program.

In July 2005 Access received funding from the City of Portland to operate. The Access program’s total budget was allocated to fund both immediate housing and drug treatment solely for the high-risk offenders identified on the NLCEP Master List.

The intent was to more closely align treatment and housing resources to the needs of these high-risk chronic offenders. The City of Portland provided $500,000 and the Portland Business Alliance, a private downtown business association, donated an additional $50,000. The result of merging no-tolerance enforcement with immediate access to housing and treatment among this population of chronic offenders was an immediate 64 percent decrease in recidivism rates that has been sustained for the past nine months.

Transferability of Program
The success of the downtown livability project involved three ingredients: the development of statistical analysis to articulate the problems, the involvement of community partners to solve the problems, and a champion of the project to create resourceful solutions to old problems. Any department bringing these three ingredients together can then develop its own livability project to solve those little problems that reduce the quality of life for the law-abiding public.


From The Police Chief, vol. 73, no. 12, December 2006. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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