Changing OTR park entrance pushed violence out

Posted at 7:00 AM, Feb 02, 2016
and last updated 2016-02-02 14:26:30-05

CINCINNATI — Cincinnati police officers want to take down more than violent offenders; they’re after the places that enable them to commit the crimes.

Think ill-placed benches, not enough street lights, parks without fences and blighted homes. Think landlords and store owners who turn a blind eye. Think playgrounds ruled by adults.

“We create peculiar situations that help offenders, and that’s why crime concentrates in spots,” said John Eck, a University of Cincinnati professor and a place-based policing expert.  "The idea is to try to rearrange the environment — the physical and social — so that we are not helping offenders with their work."

Captains Maris Herold and Mike John are leading the Cincinnati Police Department’s latest approach to reducing violent crime by targeting the public and private locations where criminals spend their time. The strategy, unveiled Monday at the Law and Public Safety meeting, is the department’s first long-term anti-crime plan since Eliot Isaac became police chief in September and since ousted police chief Jeffrey Blackwell created a 90-day crime plan that several department leaders say never really started.

“There are certain businesses and certain locations that are most certainly facilitating the crime in these areas,” Herold said, adding that gas stations — in particular — enable Cincinnati’s crime.

Officers will continue to go after the nearly 900 Cincinnati gang members reported active in September, but now places will become an integral part of their criminal investigations, too. Department leaders have prepared intelligence files for about 20 hot spots in the city, and officers will use that to disrupt the locations where offenders hang out and the places they commit their crimes.

"I really want to get away from looking at neighborhoods as violent because they’re not. It’s concentrated on very small street segments — usually smaller than that….single addresses that are contributing to this problem," Herold said.

The overall task — to reduce violent crime —  may seem like a daunting one after 492 people were shot in Cincinnati last year — 30 percent more than in 2014. But even small cosmetic changes can have a major impact on reducing the city's crime.

Just look at Grant Recreation Area in Over-the-Rhine.

‘They Were Dodging Bullets’

Take a walk on East McMicken Street in the northern part of Over-the-Rhine, and you’ll run into a playground with fresh mulch and a shiny new colorful swing set. You’ll probably even see kids playing on a nice day.

But that’s not the way Grant Recreation Area used to be. The park, located just feet away from one of the most historically violent intersections in the city, used to scare the kids away.

“The children were afraid to play in the park because they were dodging bullets. Talk about post-traumatic stress disorder with 5 year olds,” said Ethel Cogen, Neighborhood Enhancement Program coordinator for the city. “We wanted to transform that place from a place of danger to a place of safety."

So the Neighborhood Enhancement Program took on a 90-day project to revitalize the park, which re-opened May 21. They worked with the police, the fire department and the rest of the community to redesign it in a way that would push crime out and bring kids in.



And it worked. The once gate-less park is now fenced-in. There’s only one way in and one way out, which discourages the shootouts that used to happen across the park. New equipment replaced the old and seating was strategically placed.

“There are no benches right at the entrance because that attracts loitering and drug dealing. The community has reclaimed this spot,” Cogen said.

Park benches have been known to attract violent offenders in some of the city’s crime-ridden areas — like inside a notorious West End playground on Findlay Street.

The "Tot Lot"

It’s locally called the “Tot Lot,” better known as a Cincinnati gang's hangout than as a place for neighborhood kids to play. Adults, who police said are engaging in criminal activity and responsible for local shootings, took over the park's benches and picnic tables.

“Most of the time, you’d walk by and you were seeing more adults in the area than actual tots. It had become the neighborhood hang out for people without kids,” said Keith Blake, president of the West End Community Council.

In November, community members asked the Cincinnati Recreation Commission to tear down the park and replace it with a green space. The recreation commission agreed and began removing the playground equipment and benches on Monday. Blake's hope is that the adults engaging in criminal activity won’t hang out there if they don’t have a comfy place to sit.

“It’s sad. We didn’t want to (remove it). We were hoping that the community would be using it as intended,” said Bunny Arszman, administrative specialist at the Cincinnati Recreation Commission.

'All You Have To Do Sometimes Is Put Up A Fence'

Cincinnati police officers will focus on intervening with business owners and landlords who fundamentally are enabling crimes. But experts said making environmental adjustments is a key tool that makes a crime less convenient.

“Even if they weren’t intent on creating a crime before they showed up, they very quickly  looked at the surrounding environment, and they realized consciously or unconsciously, ‘I can get away with it,’” Eck said.

It’s just like how the presence of jewelry counters at department stores make it harder to steal, and dividers in park benches discourage the homeless from sleeping there, Eck said.  The average person would never notice those deterrents, he added. 

“When people let little things slide, little things become big things. When they look around and see broken windows, they assume disorder is tolerated in this neighborhood and (they) can get away with it,” said Lt. Chris Ruehmer, who leads the police department’s undercover investigations unit.

Ruehmer, who leads a team that frequently busts businesses for facilitating criminal activity, said the department relies on data to figure out how adjustments could address a crime-ridden area.

“We take a place, we look at it, we study it and we look at past practice and trends and arrests. We look at the beat cops, the investigators, the community neighborhoods. We look at the priorities. Do you need this park or want this park? How can we change it to make it safer? All you have to do sometimes is put up a fence."