Last month city leaders announced a new “roadmap to Downtown recovery” that they said will attempt to address mounting concerns about homelessness, crime, and public safety in the area.
The announcement came just hours after a press conference held outside the Long Beach Superior Court where a victim woman who’d been assaulted while walking on a Downtown sidewalk spoke out demanding “more cops.”
To combat crime like that, Councilmember Mary Zendejas, Deputy Police Chief Gerardo Prieto and Mayor Rex Richardson outlined several steps that include an increased police presence, adding more winter shelter beds and filling public spaces with more community activities.
And while he couldn’t provide specific details, Deputy Chief Prieto said the department was deploying additional officers to the downtown area, and Mayor Richardson noted the police introduced a 16-member neighborhood safety bike team earlier this year that can be sent to crime hot spots as needed.
“I’d like to get that number up to 32,” Richardson told the Long Beach Business Journal in a recent interview.
But there’s one key step the city hasn’t highlighted that could have a significant impact both on crime rates and the public’s perception of safety, which informs their decisions to go Downtown.
Police departments in other cities across the country have found success with implementing more officer foot patrols, particularly in areas with lots of crime.
The city of Buena Park has officers routinely conduct foot patrols to “get out and meet members of the community and business owners, creating personal connections.”
Oakland police this year also expanded their strategy of deploying foot patrols in commercial areas, telling KTVU Fox’s Amber Lee that, “making connections with merchants and the people who work in the area help prevent and solve crimes.”
And at the recent press conference, Mayor Richardson noted that the Downtown Long Beach Alliance has its own version of foot patrols that fill the apparent gap in visible police presence.
The “safety ambassadors” that walk and bike around the area, though they’re not officers or affiliated with police, are “…ready to offer a helping hand,” and “address safety issues on the streets before they escalate and require a police presence.”
And while it’s clear they haven’t solved the problem, the safety ambassadors make thousands of contacts and provide hundreds of “friendly safety escorts” every year in the Downtown area.
Providing that sense of security can improve the public’s perception of safety and make them more likely to populate the streets, which in turn creates a friendlier environment; safety in numbers is still true, and getting people out around Downtown only helps improve safety even more.
Here in Long Beach, police told me that, “While we are unable to measure crime that has been prevented, we have found that proactive patrols, the presence of our bike team, and community engagement have been instrumental in our efforts to enhance safety.”
As it turns out, research supports this idea; in 2009 the Philadelphia Police Department did an experiment. They reached out to Jerry Ratcliffe, a professor of criminal justice at Temple University and former British police officer, to help design it.
Previous research from Lawrence Sherman, a professor of criminology at the University of Cambridge, “discovered that 3% of the addresses had over half the crime,” creating the opportunity for targeted patrols.
And in Minneapolis, using this information, police were able to reduce crime substantially by doubling the amount of time spent in high-crime areas, or ‘hot spots.’
So Ratcliffe, working with Deputy Commissioner Kevin Bethel in Philadelphia, combined ‘hot spot’ policing with foot patrols, with astounding success.
“We knew that crime was heavily concentrated in street corners in Philadelphia,” Ratcliffe told NPR. “We could say that around 5% of corners in the city of Philadelphia had over 30 or 40% of the violent crime in the homicides and the robberies.”
The experiment used crime data to identify 120 different ‘hot spots’ across the city, and then randomly chose 60 to receive foot patrols. The other 60 served as a control, with normal service but no walking patrols.
Through the experiment, Ratcliffe found a 23% reduction in violent crime in areas with foot patrols versus those without. Since then, foot patrols have become a permanent part of policing throughout the city.
It’s important to note, however, that not all on-the-ground policing is the same. Two of the original proponents of increased foot patrols were Harvard political scientist James Q. Wilson and the Rutgers criminologist George Kelling, who in 1982 published the infamous “Broken Windows” article that argued that criminals perceive broken windows and other forms of disorder as signs of weak social control, and assume their crimes will go unpunished.
According to Eric Klinenberg in The New Yorker, the conclusions drawn from that article led police to implement “‘zero tolerance’ policing, wherein officers monitor petty crimes, such as graffiti, loitering, public intoxication, and even panhandling, and courts severely punish those convicted of committing them.”
“In practice, this meant stopping, frisking, and arresting more people, particularly those who live in high-crime areas,” Klinenberg wrote in 2018.
We all know how ‘stop and frisk’ worked out. In New York, a federal judge found that stop-and-frisk policies disproportionately targeted Black and Latino communities. In 2011, out of an astounding 685,724 police stops, 574,483 of those stopped were Black or Latino, and only 61,804 were white (83% vs only 9%). Long Beach has its own questionable record on this front. An analysis in 2020 showed they stopped and searched Black motorists at a disproportionately high rate even though those searches rarely turned up any contraband.
But that doesn’t mean officers shouldn’t walk the beat.
In an essay for the Violence Reduction Project, Professor Ratcliffe and Dr. Evan Sorg, an assistant professor in the Department of Law and Justice Studies at Rowan University, said they’re “not necessarily advocating for beefed-up enforcement efforts through arrests or pedestrian stops.”
Instead, officers should focus on community relations, they wrote, and strike a balance between law enforcement and efforts to engage the community.
“Sometimes, a consistent presence of an officer can be a strong deterrent, so increases in aggressive enforcement are unnecessary. This is especially true if community relations are to be prioritized alongside crime prevention.”
“Officer[s] must be active enough to know who the local people are, who should (and should not) be in the area, and be able to engage — positively — with everyone on their beat,” they wrote.
Long Beach does perform some foot patrols. Although he couldn’t provide specific numbers or deployments, Public Information Officer Eric Stachura said in an email that, “Officers often work on bike or on foot as part of special assignments in the downtown area and as part of the Neighborhood Safety Bike Team.”
He also said that since the Mayor’s announcement, “Additional officers have been strategically reallocated to supplement proactive and preventative patrol measures.”
It looks like the police department is starting to see the value of officers on foot or bike in the Downtown area. While squad cars will of course continue to be a big part of the Police Department’s ability to respond quickly to a variety of situations, providing a visible, street-level presence around the city could be the key to addressing crime and safety issues in Downtown Long Beach.