The quality of life in the once-notorious 1900 block of Jackson Avenue has improved dramatically over the past two-and-a-half years, Fifth Ward Alderman Delores Holmes said recently. The benchmark is the number of calls for police help on that block. “Between August 2007 and August 2008 there were 1,187 calls to the police in that block. Between August 2008 and August 2009 there were 50 calls,” Ald. Holmes said.
Implementation of the Safer Neighborhood Area Project (SNAP) is in large part responsible for the change, said Ald. Holmes, adding, “All the credit goes to [police officer] Tanya Noble.”
The SNAP program is a multifaceted crime prevention program that comprises one approach of Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED). According to the National Crime Prevention Council, “CPTED theories contend that law enforcement officers, architects, city planners, landscape and interior designers, and resident volunteers can create a climate of safety in a community. … CPTED’s goal is to prevent crime by designing a physical environment that positively influences human behavior.”
An environment can allow crime or deter it, Officer Noble told the RoundTable. “Crime prevention and reducing crime have to be much more than law enforcement. … For long-term sustainable results you need many participants and a holistic approach. CPTED allows us to look at a neighborhood through a more holistic approach,” she said.
In many cases the CPTED concept is incorporated into new developments, but Officer Noble said she believes there are also advantages to applying it to existing areas. “In a built environment you can already recognize where the weaknesses lie,” she said.
A Troubled Block
T-Mobile, the kids called Officer Tanya Noble. As she patrolled the area of 1900 Jackson Ave., they told her of the gun shots they had heard and the fights they had witnessed the night before. The stories she heard almost daily – variations on a theme of drugs, gangs, guns and fights in that west Evanston neighborhood – prompted her to try a new approach to cleaning up a block that for 30 years or more had been infamous for its criminal activity.
“It was poorly lighted. The garbage was not always picked up. There were …‘absent place managers’ [absentee landlords] who did not keep up the property and for whom there was no accountability,” Officer Noble said.
Even the police were nervous about going there, she added.
There were several foreclosed and vacant properties, which were used for gun and drug sales. “I saw a lot of investment in property [but the owners would] put as little money into it as possible,” she said. And property inspections did not keep up with the problem: The City’s property standards division performs inspections only every two years. The Housing Authority of Cook County [HACC] inspects yearly, she said.
Officer Noble said she studied an approach that had been used in Europe for 25 years but was just coming to the United States: Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED). She continued, “I went to the Community Development Block Grant Committee (CDBG). At that time the City was just beginning to say it wanted to be the ‘most livable city in America,’ and I said, ‘How can you be the most livable city when you have [the conditions at] 1900 Jackson?”
In 2007, the City Council approved CDBG funding to train 25 City staff members from the police, streets and sanitation, and property standards departments in the CPTED approach. That year, according to police data, there were 1,187 calls to the 1900 block of Jackson Avenue. Between August 2008 and August 2009, there were 50.
“Deputy Chief Tom Cabanski looked at the data and called me to say there had been a 98 percent reduction in service calls in two years,” said Officer Noble.
Getting the Buy-In
Understanding the criminal mind was key to making changes in the environment, Officer Noble said. “We tried to think like criminals: ‘What is it about this place that allows crime?’” she said. Broken fences and unlit alleys provide an opportunity for a quick, unnoticed getaway. A place that lacks lighting to the extent that people feel uncomfortable there could be “a place for an ambush. … There should be enough light for anyone to perceive a threat from 25 feet away,” she added.
Creating a hostile environment for crime required both City and neighborhood buy-in. Ald. Holmes said. “We got all the department heads trained [in the SNAP concept] and tried to get the neighbors to clean up the neighborhood. Traffic engineers, the sanitation department, the property standards department – all were involved,” she added.
One result is that even more light will shine on the block once the City installs additional light poles. “We have a CDBG award of $30,000 for new street light poles,” said Officer Noble, crediting Paul Schneider, head of the City’s department of transportation, with understanding the problem and helping with the solution.
Getting neighbors on board took some time. At first some people on the block were wary of the program. In some cases, said Ald. Holmes, “People were resistant because they were concerned that we were trying to make people move out of the neighborhood. That was not our idea at all.”
In some cases, though, tenants with subsidized housing vouchers or residing in public housing had to take a stand against criminal activity that they had either tolerated or fostered – or had been intimidated to ignore – or face possible loss of that housing, Officer Noble said.
“We had a troubled building – and really had some help in getting the landlord to clean it up,” said Ald. Holmes.
In addition, the police are working with landlords, including HACC, suggesting more stringent criteria for screening tenants, she said.
By removing some tenants from the buildings, holding the property owners accountable for property standards violations and for tenants’ behavior and by offering tenant-screening criteria to concerned landlords, the CPTED group was able to purge most of the buildings of criminal activity as well as the tenants and landlords responsible for it, said Officer Noble.
“In the next year I’m really going to monitor it closely. [We] really have a lot invested … to see a 98 percent drop in crime. This saves police time and money – so we can concentrate our efforts elsewhere,” said Officer Noble. She added that she felt the surveillance cameras to be installed in the area later this year will help.
“Things are really changing there,” said Ald. Holmes
“I foresee that it’s only going to get better,” said Officer Noble.