Downtown Explores Novel Ways To Fight Crime

by Steve Zegalia

Background

Eugene Station, at the center of downtown

Stop on the corner of 10th and Willamette in Eugene’s downtown, and you’ll see clear sidewalks and a busy flow of foot traffic through Eugene Station and local businesses. Although it is a relatively calm place now, downtown Eugene wasn’t always as orderly and safe as it is now. As recently as a few years ago, crime was a big problem for small business owners. Because of decreased foot traffic due to vandalism, property crimes, and assaults, local businesses were losing money, so they decided to band together to draft a letter asking city council to help them clean up downtown.

The sidewalk along 10th Ave. reads "Do Not Block The Public Right of Way"

The sidewalk along 10th Ave. reads "Do Not Block The Public Right of Way"

The city responded by making downtown safety a priority, creating bicycle patrols in the warmer months to combat increased crime, and enacting controversial ordinance No. 20419. The ordinance created a downtown exclusion zone, an area from which people who commit crimes can be removed for ninety days or a year, depending on the severity of the offense. In addition, the city has posted “Do Not Block” signs on the sidewalks next to Eugene station, cutting down on crowding that used to create a difficult bottleneck. Pedestrians are now ticketed if they linger or otherwise block the area, which provides a path to several businesses.

To help thwart graffiti and vandalism, the Eugene Downtown Initiative has instituted a program wherein offenders have to meet early in the morning to clear the sidewalks and walls of the city of graffiti. The police have contributed a patrol of four bicycle officers for the spring and summer of the past two years, when more people are out and about. Although it’s hard to tell specifically how much each factor has helped to improve downtown, many believe that things have improved in the past couple years.  “It’s so much better than it was a few years ago”, says Jesse Wells, a downtown resident.

A view of Downtown from Spencer's Butte

To take a look at the realities of fighting crime in the downtown sector, we spoke via email to Lt. Doug Movan of the Eugene Police , who is in charge of supervising downtown activity:

-Since decreasing crime in the downtown area is one of the priorities of the Eugene Police, what kind of actions are going to be taken (or have already begun) in order to accomplish that objective?

Since about 1990, we’ve had contract foot patrol officers working in the downtown core. It has always been that one officer was paid for by private entities, and we provided a second cover officer courtesy of EPD. That is the status quo right now, though we’ve deployed an additional 4 bike patrol officers with their own supervisor for the past 2 Spring/Summer seasons when activity usually picks up. We’ll do that again this year, but with a new twist.

Late in 2009, City Council made Downtown Safety a priority based on feedback from a variety of stakeholders. They hatched the 12 point downtown strategy to address various safety and economic concerns. EPD was given resources to hire 7 new officers, with the caveat that it takes about 18 months to train an officer to “solo patrol” status, or in other words make them usable for a new project. We’re coming up on that timeframe in October, and plan to deploy a permanent Downtown team with 4 more officers and a sergeant (based on 4 hired first,) and adding an additional 3 to the mix later in the fiscal year as more Full Time Employees (FTEs) become available.

We implemented the Downtown Public Safety Zone ordinance as a means to “exclude” by court order those that detract from downtown safety by offenses they’ve committed. That program has been successful in both mitigating problems, and in some cases getting the message to key offenders that their behavior is no longer tolerable in our City.

-To what degree is homelessness and transience a problem for downtown?

Eugene has a rather large homeless population, but there’s a key distinction to make here between the homeless and transients. A homeless person is a resident of Eugene who doesn’t have a residence, and a transient is a non-resident, either homeless or otherwise. We deal with criminal transience more than homelessness, mostly from people who pass through on buses and that sort of thing.

-How big of a problem is vandalism in the downtown area, and how do the police combat that?

Vandalism in the downtown area usually has three faces: Tagging graffiti, Gang graffiti, and theft related damage. All three are substantial problems in the downtown core, and we’re using a variety of public and private entities to track, document, and pursue criminals who damage property in these ways. I’d say more here, but I don’t want to compromise any of our investigative efforts underway.

-In the typical patrol for an officer, what kind of routine call is the most troublesome in terms of resources and/or time?

Any call that results in a custody arrest with evidence processing takes a substantial chunk of the officers’ time to process. Officers must take criminals to jail (easy enough downtown), but then drive way into west Eugene to lodge evidence. We’re working on streamlining that with a drop point in our new station at LCC.

-What is the biggest problem, crime-wise, that faces the downtown area of the city?

Hard question to answer. It varies by time of day, and is better answered by residents and other stakeholders than by us. I’d say the most emerging issue is gang-related crime and drug dealing to at-risk youths, but many residents may say drunken transients are a menace to their area. Business owners may say graffiti, while bar owners may say disorder and violent crime in their sector. It’s a busy area no matter how you slice it.

Controversy and Numbers

City Ordinance No. 20419 has been a polarizing subject for downtown since its passage in September 2008. Many, though by no means all, business owners support the law, but there was significant criticism from both inside and outside downtown. The most notable opposition of the law came from the Eugene ACLU, which holds the position that the law infringes on due process for those it applies to. “The ACLU has a position that it opposes exclusion zones of the kind that we have in Eugene on the basis that it undermines due process, and that punishment in the form of banishment is a serious enough punishment that it should only be imposed, if at all, by a judge as part of a criminal conviction” says ACLU field organizer Claire Syrett. The organization considered bringing a lawsuit against the city, but, she says, ”We decided that trying to pursue it in the courts would be a big effort that might not succeed, so we didn’t pursue litigation.” She explains that the city has built a system into the code where those who are subject to exclusion appear before a judge briefly to decide their fate. This appearance helps the city battle any lawsuits that might be potential brought claiming lack of due process. As of now, the ACLU has no plans to further formally oppose the law, which was renewed for another 18 months this year after the city council voted 5-3 to extend it.

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In the first 20 months of existence, 8% of all individuals subject to police enforcement involved the use of exclusion. The number of charges in the downtown zone increased from 1,372 in 2007 to 1,837 in 2008 (ordinance enacted in September), and decreased to 1,543 in 2009. Full 2010 numbers were unavailable. Since the imposition of the exclusion zone, there has been a reduction in reported liquor violations and criminal trespass, but an increase in reported assault crimes.

A Business Owner’s Perspective

Stand at the corner of Willamette and 10th for long enough, and chances are you’ll see Walt Hunt engaged in conversation with the various people who pass by, hang out, and otherwise populate the downtown area. Most of those who come by he knows by name, and as he asks them about what’s been happening in their lives, there’s a sense that this is someone who cares about the people who share the downtown space with him.

The reason Hunt is on the corner is not merely because he enjoys company but because he is the proprietor of New Odyssey Juice Bar, located next to McDonald Theatre on one of the busiest corners in Eugene. New Odyssey is a café that sells all kinds of smoothies, drinks, and sandwiches, to a customer base of mainly locals and regulars. The café is filled with various local artwork and bright upbeat music, which complement the high ceilings and the glass walls that provide a view of the street in two directions.

The sign for New Oddyssey hangs above the corner of 10th and Willamette

Hunt has run the café with his wife for 11 years now. Before that, he ran a juice stand at the Saturday market affiliated with a company called Genesis. New Odyssey was originally called Genesis Juice Bar, but Hunt bought out his partners in the late 1990s, allowing him to run the café himself.

Being located in the hustle and bustle of downtown has its advantages as well as disadvantages, namely crime, of which Hunt is all too aware. On this subject, he speaks with the conviction that comes with experience.  A few years ago, he says, downtown commerce got stuck with a bad combination of high crime and a poor economy. Local businesses, which had been seeing steady growth for the previous few years, started to see losses as their foot traffic disappeared.

New Odyssey had been growing for about eight years, but declining sales put them in a position where they were not able to keep all of their employees. “You can compare Eugene to other similar cities in this period, and we had very high crime in general” says Hunt, who says that the sale of narcotics such as meth and heroin was especially troubling for him. Eventually, after talking to other business owners, Hunt used his position as head of the Merchants association to ask city council to take a greater interest in downtown crime. “We drew up a letter, we got 135 business owners, and we took it down to city council, and they heard, because that is a lot of people. “

In response, the city made it a priority to clean up downtown, bringing in an additional 4 bicycle patrol cops and passing the exclusion zone law.

Hunt is a supporter of the exclusion zone law, because he believes it has improved the downtown area in terms of safety. He bristles at suggestions by critics that the law is targeting homeless people and transients.

“They say we were picking on homeless people. That was never the case. If you talk to homeless people and bring my name up, you’ll get a very positive response. We’re very caring in this town.” Hunt also is quick to point out that police data doesn’t always present a clear picture of crime trends, because businesses and people know that some crimes are not going to get more than cursory attention from the police. In response, he has tried to get people and businesses to report all crimes, so as to give the city an accurate report of crime activity. “The one that’s underreported is theft and break-ins”, he says, “If you report it, we can show the public and police department what we’re trying to deal with.”

According to Hunt, things are much better now, and although he still occasionally deals with the problems of downtown crime, it isn’t a hindrance to his business like it was in past years.  Still, like most people, he’ll only be satisfied if crime isn’t a problem at all for downtown: “What we are not happy is with blatant crime happening outside our doorstep. We think these crimes shouldn’t take place.”



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