CINCINNATI — Some of the places you drive by and visit every day — gas stations, apartment complexes, bars and small shops — can be hornets' nests for local crime.
“I’ve seen them run very well where it’s hard to detect behavior that’s indicative of an illicit market,” Cincinnati Police Capt. Maris Herold said.
Sometimes, the owners are in on it. Sometimes, they’re turning a blind eye. Sometimes, they’re too far removed from their business to have a clue what’s going on inside.
Cincinnati police leaders want to get to the bottom of it, and that’s why officers will soon receive special training and intelligence files to target about 20 hot spots in the city — the places that breed Cincinnati’s crime.
"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,” said Herold, who’s co-leading the Cincinnati Police Department’s new initiative to fight crime.
The strategy, unveiled last month at the Law and Public Safety meeting, targets the public and private locations where criminal spend their time. It's the department’s first long-term anti-crime plan since Eliot Isaac became police chief in September, and it comes in the wake of a violent year in Cincinnati with nearly 500 people shot in 2015.
It sometimes only takes a small cosmetic change to have a major impact on violent crime, but often the issues go deeper — starting with the people who run the places criminals commit their crimes.
“If we were dealing with violent crime in a night club, you’re going to handle it differently than drug dealing in a public park, which sets up situations like drive-by shootings. One is open air. One is closed. One is publicly owned. One is privately owned. The first place I start is ‘Who owns this place?' And then the next thing I ask is ‘How is it managed?’" said John Eck, a University of Cincinnati professor and a national expert on place-based policing.
"We have to figure out how the manager works, and why things are failing. Almost inevitably in a high-crime place, something is going wrong,”
Businesses Send Signals to Criminals
Experts said business owners and landlords who don’t take care of their property make criminals feel invited to break the law.
“High-crime places are sending signals to these offenders — consciously or unconsciously — that ‘I can get away with this here and this is a good place to go.' They tell their friends, and they tell their friends, and then they come back again and again,” Eck said.
It can be as simple as having poor lighting or an unkempt lawn or as complex as holding after-hours at night clubs or running a black market within a shop.
“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.
Eck said businesses manipulate environments every day to send a message to their consumers — and it’s not all bad.
“We do the kind of things that we think are normal, natural, exciting, fun. You walk into a sports bar, and you feel like you’re among friends. You’re excited. You buy some beer while you’re there. It works both ways,” he said.
Crime occurs when there’s not a good set of rules at a location, experts said. If there are rules, they’re enforced in an arbitrary way or not at all.
When Management Doesn’t Have a Clue
In some situations, the managers are in on the criminal behavior. But not every business owner or landlord knows they’re part of the problem, experts said.
Take gas stations, for example. Herold said the places you fill up your tank uniquely facilitate criminal behavior in Cincinnati.
“They’re not managed proactively. It comes down to an issue of ownership being so far removed from management practices or owners who don’t reside here in the city,” Herold said.
Experts clarify that it’s "the minority of the minority” of local businesses that have a problem. But a lack of good management at one place can have a domino effect on unwanted behavior.
“Corner grocery stores are the same way. Most don’t have too much of a problem, but some tolerate a lot of deviancy. Offenders will congregate around them. People who want to buy a few groceries will stay away because they find the place too dangerous. It reduces the guardianship and compounds the problem,” Eck said.
Herold said often the problem is fixed with a simple phone call to the company’s management team. But some non-local property owners can be difficult to deal with, Eck said.
"If they live out of state and they are not an individual but some sort of corporate entity, they have no real interest in the neighborhood or residents. Why would they want to change?” he said.
City Trainings Teach Property Owners to Keep Crime Away
If a property owners feels like their business is too far gone to keep crime away, experts said it’s not always too late to turn things around.
Herold said owners can make a troublesome place less troublesome with proactive management.
"There’s all different kinds of business centers and thought processes on how to run a business. (It’s) sometimes not understanding crime, and sometimes (it's) being afraid. A lot of these owners do not have any experience managing properties. People buy them to make money and don’t have any idea how hard these places are to manage,” Herold said
That’s why city and police leaders have hosted a free landlord training seminar for years.
Officers and Cincinnati officials teach local landlords how to keep crime away from their properties and how to reduce crime at a problem apartment complex or home. They learn how to identify drug activity, the importance of screening and rental agreements, where to install lighting, and how often to check on their tenants, among other issues.
"I’ve seen crime go down in certain properties from landlords being educated on the things that they are able to,” said Officer Quiana Cambell, who helped organized the city’s last landlord training seminar in Roselawn in September.
Thirty-one landlords attended the city’s last seminar, Cambell said. The next one is slated for this spring in Price Hill, but officials said a date has not been set.
Herold said she expects the landlord training seminars to become more frequent as the police department ramps up its new strategy.
The department just rolled out community surveys in the 20 hot-spot locations to collect more intelligence information and inform the community of the department's plans, Herold said.