PORTLAND — Nuisance crimes happen with certain regularity.
On the first of the month, the unwanted furniture of departing tenants clogs sidewalks around the city. Black garbage bags appear on curbsides weekly on trash pick-up day. And Saturday nights invite public urination and noise complaints.
Quality-of-life issues like these have traditionally been hard to tackle because solving the problem has always meant catching the suspect in the act – something that’s nearly impossible to do.
So the Portland Police Department is trying out a new approach to solving nuisance crimes. The department has hired an attorney to prosecute violators who don’t pay their fines, and to crack down on landlords who allow graffiti and garbage to remain on their property. The position is called the neighborhood prosecutor, and it’s the first of its kind in the state.
It was the brainchild of police Chief James Craig. Craig had worked extensively with neighborhood prosecutors in his previous position as a police captain in Los Angeles. In Portland, he said, he heard many complaints about trash and graffiti, issues that in Los Angeles were addressed by the neighborhood prosecutor.
When Craig arrived, civil violations like these were supposed to be handled by the city’s district attorneys. But more often than not, they slipped through the cracks.
“I recognize here the district attorney’s office is certainly focused on more serious crimes. They’re under-staffed, over-worked, like most places,” Craig said. “And so I thought, why not try to get funding for a neighborhood prosecutor who can handle those small offenses.”
Last spring, Craig applied for a federal Justice Assistance Grant and was awarded enough to fund a part-time position for six months. But “we quickly realized part-time is not good enough,” Craig said. “There’s a lot of work that’s being done, and our neighborhood prosecutor was being stretched.”
This fall the Police Department received a second federal grant for $199,000, allowing Craig to extend the position another year and expand it to full time. In addition, the grant will pay for officer training and equipment.
Trish McAllister, Portland’s neighborhood prosecutor, agrees that she has definitely been busy. Since assuming the position in May, she has appeared in court nearly a dozen times to issue fines for civil violations like public urination and illegal dumping.
She has brought one lawsuit against a landlord for violating the disorderly house ordinance, or owning a property that repeatedly comes to the attention of police.
And she has made countless phone calls to property owners threatening them with legal action if they don’t clean up their buildings.
McAllister said these phone calls are often her most effective tools: just the threat of legal action is often enough to get property owners to take responsibility. Because of this, McAllister spends most of her time trying to keep people out of court by educating community members about the services she provides and working with violators to avoid bringing a lawsuit against them.
“We try and attack these problems in a creative way,” she said. “We’d much rather do it with communication and plans for action rather than bringing lawsuits. That really is the last resort.”
As an example of her approach to quality-of-life issues, McAllister described how she is working to address graffiti.
Going after owners
Currently, the only way to bring a graffiti artist to justice is to arrest them. This means a police officer must catch the person in the act of spraying graffiti – something that is nearly impossible. So McAllister is working to create a civil ordinance that would allow her to fine owners for allowing graffiti to remain on their property.
According to McAllister, ordinances that hold property owners responsible for removing graffiti from their buildings within a certain amount of time have been shown to be effective.
“Responsible property owners do that,” she said. “But irresponsible ones just let it sit there, and what that does is send the message more graffiti is OK.”
The new approach – holding landlords responsible for the upkeep of their property – applies to other nuisances as well, from cleaning up illegally dumped trash to dealing with disruptive tenants. Indeed, McAllister’s first lawsuit is against the owner of 255 Oxford St., a building that she called one of the “biggest problem properties in Portland.”
McAllister said she made several attempts to meet with the owner and discuss alternative solutions to legal action, like evicting problem tenants or issuing criminal trespass paperwork. “That just hasn’t worked,” she said.
So now she’s suing the owner under the disorderly house ordinance, a statue that allows her to bring legal action against the owner of a building that receives more than eight police visits per month for civil or criminal activity.
Whether it’s dumping, graffiti or noise complaints, McAllister is broadening the blame for such crimes to include not only the perpetrators, but also the landlords who enable them. And it’s not always a popular solution.
At a recent meeting of the Bayside Neighborhood Association, Portland resident Steve Hirshon worried that he could be cited if people dump garbage in front of his house. “I would be damned if I’m going to pay for somebody else’s furniture just because someone had the audacity to leave it in front of my house,” he said.
McAllister said she hears this concern all the time from landlords. Her response? Tough luck.
“It’s a tough pill to swallow, but the fact of the matter is, if you’re going to be a responsible property owner, you’re going to have to take responsibility for that. You can’t just walk away from a building and let whatever happen.”
Other property owners, like Gilman Street resident Moses Sabina, thinks McAllister’s approach to nuisance crimes is not only fair, but essential.
“It’s unfortunate that it would happen to my property, but it’s my responsibility,” he said. He added that as a member of the St. John Valley Neighborhood Association, he hears many complaints about issues like graffiti and dumping.
“The hard crime really isn’t an issue,” Sabina said. “It’s the day-t0-day stuff that people complain about all the time.”
And if not addressed, Sabina said he believes that issues like graffiti can invite more criminal activity to an area, a sentiment echoed by the police chief.
“While graffiti is in some ways a small issue, it really is a big issue,” Craig said. “And while we don’t pick up trash as part of our job function, we don’t clean up graffiti, we do have a stake in creating safe communities. And safe communities are communities that look safe.”