Cops in the 'hood

Does it help to have police live in the neighborhoods they patrol?

Published June 14, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

"OK, this one," the detective says as we pull slowly past a neat clapboard house in a run-down neighborhood. "Vietnamese guy is out watering his bushes. Knucklehead comes up, whips it out, gets to peeing right on them. Vietnamese guy yells at him." The detective narrates calmly, eyes both on the road and on the wary people watching the strangers go by. "Knucklehead goes on up the block home, gives his kid brother $20, $25 to go back down and shoot the guy. Kid rides his bike down, shoots at the Vietnamese guy but hits his brother sitting on the porch. Dead. The first guy, the guy ain't shot, runs in the house, gets his gun, shoots kid brother in the back of the head as he rides off on the bike."

My driver almost displays anger. Almost. "They actually tried him. The Vietnamese guy." He allows himself a little disgusted snort of a laugh.

I crane my neck to keep the house where something so awful happened in view as long as possible.

"But he was acquitted, right? The Vietnamese guy?"

"Yes! but ... Yeah. He got off. OK, this one." He might have been giving me the baseball scores. "Old guy. Lived here forever. Knucklehead grandson's a doper. Goes to jail. He gives evidence on some more knuckleheads. They decide to rob his house. Now, he's in jail, don't even live there no more, but the grandfather's there, so once they get into the house ..." I listen and find myself wondering what size chalk outline a wizened old man leaves, and what it's like to hear gunshots in the night.

Never let a homicide detective show you around his city. You don't see neighborhoods; you see crime scenes. You don't see residents; you see witnesses who refuse to come forward and knuckleheads who the cops know, but can't prove, have literally gotten away with murder. So where does a cop live? What's his take on his neighbors? Is he supposed to mediate disputes on his own time? What's his duty when the guy in 4B lights up a blunt at a neighborhood barbecue? Do they make neighborhoods better? Safer? Or do they invite retribution? Should they live in the cities they patrol?

New York's police brutality problem has focused attention on getting more cops to live in the neighborhoods they patrol. There have been many such efforts. Since 1997, the Department of Housing and Urban Development's Officer Next Door Program has made 2,511 police officers urban homeowners, with 50 percent discounts on foreclosed homes and $100 down payments. The catch is that they have to stay at least three years and the homes have to be in "designated revitalization areas" -- aka the 'hood. Working with private lenders, the program so far includes 36 states and the District of Columbia.

Many localities have similar home-grown versions: St. Louis' Cops on the Block initiative has helped 178 policemen buy homes in its inner city since 1994. San Diego offers "silent second" mortgages of up to $25,000 that require no payment of principal or interest; many cities absorb closing costs and arrange low-cost financing for their homesteading officers. In parts of D.C., apartment complexes vie for officers to live either free or nearly so on their property. Atlanta, Baltimore and even New York offer cops free or cut-rate housing in public housing complexes.

Here in Charlotte, the Officer Home Loan Program takes the same approach. Law enforcement officers willing to live in areas designated "threatened" or "fragile" receive interest-free loans of $10,000 to $15,000, which are forgiven entirely after five years. So far, four Charlotte officers have taken advantage of the year-old program.

I wonder what my homicide guide thinks of Charlotte's program.

"Would you live here if you could get a low --"


"Not even with a fif --"

"No. I live way out where its almost rural. I have a wife, a daughter. No. I go to the mall and run into bad guys I've dealt with. I don't need them down the block, too."

But these programs didn't exist when my guide was a younger, struggling and maybe less world-weary rookie officer. For some of them, home-ownership help could make a difference. According to criminal justice scholar Morgan Reynolds, the median entrance salary for police officers was only $26,313 in 1995. The median maximum salary was only $36,597. That's a lot of money to anyone who makes less, but as much as 80 percent of officers have to moonlight. Officers in real estate markets like New York's and California's will be renting or commuting long distances for a long time without a leg up like this. In fact, Lancaster, Calif., in the Mojave Desert, has 115 law enforcement officers involved in HUD's program -- more than any other city (Chicago is second with 97). Officers in California contest bitterly over the properties; at least 300 are still awaiting homes there.

On the other hand, Memphis and Tulsa's programs, according to press reports, have few takers. "[The success of the programs] all depends on local conditions," says Lemar Wooley of HUD.

And when policemen live so close to crime, what do they see? One officer in South Carolina moved into a home he'd once raided. He found bullet holes in the walls and the previous tenants' (who were crack dealers) drug-hiding places. A D.C. cop coming home from his morning workout recognized a loiterer in his stairwell as a man he had a case pending against. A records check revealed him to also be a Virginia fugitive; the cop made an arrest on his own front door step. The same officer also seized drugs from a neighbor who pleaded guilty and was never seen again. His neighbors may be safer, but is this officer? What if a previous arrestee recognizes some grocery-toting off-duty cop first?

I wondered what residents might think about having cops as neighbors, so I wandered around some "fragile" and "threatened" neighborhoods in Charlotte without my police escort -- as their families, and the locals, have to do. "There go the neighborhood!" crowed one man, perched on an upturned crate, when I asked about having cops live in the 'hood. "There it go!" He laughed so hard at his own wit he coughed and sputtered.

"But seriously, would you or wouldn't you like to have cops here? Do you think they'd hassle you or help you? You know, community policing?" But he just kept braying at his joke.

The unsmiling man next to him cut in.

"Ain't no cop coming here." Whether a prediction or a promise, I couldn't tell.

Women snatched up their children and retreated from their porches as I approached, preferring their un-air-conditioned houses (I could see fans whirring inside) to a stranger with a pad and pencil bearing down on them. But I know from reporting on gangs that the presence of cops and cop cars after a shooting makes the innocent feel safe; it's the one time when women, children and old people in bad neighborhoods can claim their sidewalks and playgrounds. Even if they have to share them with an ambulance or a corpse, they feel safer. Sure, the women distrust me and back off as I approach, but they might feel differently about an officer who was a homey.

New York's mayor and police chief think so. Or maybe they just hope so. In any event, only 54 percent of New York's beleaguered police force lives in the city, according to the New York Times. Less than half of the white officers do, while 78 percent of both black and Asian officers and 73 percent of Hispanics do. So, increasing the percentage of city-dwelling cops would probably also help to diversify a police force that is currently 67 percent white. Though they oppose mandatory city residency for cops, Mayor Rudy Giuliani and Commissioner Howard Safir are trying to increase the number of city residents on the force -- through intensive recruiting and exam preferences -- in the wake of the Amadou Diallo killing and the Abner Louima brutality case. "Certainly the Diallo shooting raised our consciousness," Safir told the Times. "As we recruit more city residents, the department will more adequately reflect the city." But will that mean greater stability for distressed neighborhoods?

Columbia, S.C., claims a 16 percent decrease in crime in neighborhoods where police officers came to live and that houses nearby that had languished on the market for years sold. Officers report being consulted by neighbors to settle disputes and to give home safety demonstrations. They spearhead neighborhood watch groups and shepherd locals through regulatory agencies to get their properties up to code.

Not everyone is impressed though. The Justice Department's Gil Kerlikowske told the Times, "There's nothing that I know of that supports the idea that a police officer living in the city vs. living outside the city provides better service, is more caring." "It's a cheap solution that's based on stereotypes," Samuel Walker of the University of Nebraska said in the same article. A Charlotte patrolman I approached at random put it rather more bluntly, "I'm tired of all of it when I get home," she said. "I don't want to deal with anybody's problems but my own. I'm not a priest."

My guide to homicide in Charlotte also shows me some "nice," neither fragile nor threatened, areas where senseless violence has also taken place. He talks freely about violent crime and the criminal mind as we drive. But he says little about my attempts to "put crime in its sociological context," though he occasionally chuckles without malice at what I say. One of the times he chuckles is when I talk about how much lower murder rates are now. "Can't tell it by Charlotte," he quips. There had been two murders in Charlotte the night before. "Whoo," he says. "That was a 30 hour shift for somebody. Glad it wasn't me."

He drops me off at the Criminal Courts Building and I'm nearly inside when I hear tires screech. He's hanging out his window. "Be careful. Lots of bad guys in there." He's not laughing. He's not scowling. All I know for sure is, this is one cop who won't be moving to the 'hood any time soon.

By Debra Dickerson


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