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Va. PD proposes team of ‘environmental’ officers to fight blight

Police Chief Steve Drew says the sight of trash and abandoned vehicles gives the impression that no one cares and can increase crime


Master Police Officer Donald Greathouse walks past an illegal dumping site in the town of Newport News, Virginia.

Jonathon Gruenke

By Jessica Nolte
Daily Press

NEWPORT NEWS, Va. — Master Police Officer Donald Greathouse noticed two stained and ripped mattresses dumped on a street corner in Newport News about half of a block from an elementary school bus stop.

He took pictures to show the police chief.

“There are elementary school kids who see those mattresses when they get on the school bus and they see them when they get off — I think that affects people,” Police Chief Steve Drew told the Daily Press. “There are citizens who drive by and see that. I think that affects people.”

At Drew’s request, the city’s proposed budget this year includes funding for three “environmental” police officers — one in each of the city’s policing precincts — to address blight in the neighborhoods that most frequently see violent crime. When people see trash, overgrown trees and abandoned vehicles along the side of the road, Drew said, it gives the impression that no one cares, which he believes can increase crime or make people less likely to report it.

“I want to focus on areas that have crime issues and make sure that those things are addressed within 24 to 48 hours,” Drew said. “I don’t want to just send a work order in and wait two or three weeks for it to be addressed.”

“When you start turning things around in 24 or 48 hours, you start building trust,” he added.

The idea for the program has roots in the broken window theory, which was defined by social scientists in the early 1980s. The theory uses broken windows as a metaphor for problems in a neighborhood such as dilapidated buildings and inadequate lighting. It contends that one unaddressed problem leads to more because it sends the message no one cares.

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The money for the officers still has to be approved by the City Council. Starting up the program in January would cost the city about $385,000 to pay for the officers and provide them with vehicles.

The police department began a pilot program in July by moving Greathouse from the community and youth outreach division to focus on the blight issues. Drew said he wanted to see whether community members would start reporting problems to the officer. They did.

“A lot of times what we find is that people make these piles in front of a vacant lot and that pile goes from a few items to what we call a community pile,” Greathouse said. “It’s everything from raw trash, raw garbage to toilets — everything you can imagine.”

The 30-year police veteran said he knew there were issues when he started the new assignment, but he was “surprised at how much blight there was out there.”

Sometimes, the problem isn’t with an entire neighborhood, Drew said. Sometimes there’s an abandoned building that becomes a hotspot for illegal activity such as drug use and prostitution. Boarding up those buildings, Drew says, can reduce the crime in an area. If the boards are torn down, he’ll know to put additional surveillance in the area.

The environmental officers won’t be doing the same things as code enforcement officers, though they’ll work closely with the city’s fire, public works and codes compliance departments.

They’ll be focused on select neighborhoods, and building relationships with the residents to address the most pressing concerns sooner than a regular work order, which may take about two weeks. Through the partnerships, environmental officers will get training most police officers don’t have, such as learning about hazardous materials that may be leaking from cars left on the street or code violations including dangerous wiring, Drew said. They may also be used to provide protection when enforcing code violations or to beef up police presence when certain neighborhoods have spikes in violence.

Drew hopes that as people see the police department and city cleaning up their neighborhoods, they’ll want to get involved as well.

In the future, he wants to see churches, individuals and local organizations organize their own cleanups. The chief said he’s even willing to spring for food or man the grill to help make it a celebration.

Greathouse said he’s begun building relationships. In March, he took part in a neighborhood cleanup with about 60 volunteers in the city’s south precinct to pick up more than 1,200 pounds of litter and debris along 15 blocks.

“It’s all about getting the community involved and having them support us on this journey that we’re on,” Greathouse said. “Ultimately, we want to make their neighborhoods safer and a place where they can enjoy where they live.”

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