The Charlotte Mecklenburg Police Department’s discussions about creating “public safety zones,” where people who have been arrested could be barred from entering, is being criticized by civil libertarians as being possibly unconstitutional and unfair to minorities.
But two nationally-known law enforcement experts contacted by the Observer said the concept is an innovative approach that could make crime-prone areas safer.
The idea would allow the police chief to create safety zones in response to a spike in crime.
People who are arrested inside the zone could be prohibited from entering for a certain time period, though they could appeal their banishment. The city has said there would be waivers granted for people who live inside a zone or need to go inside the area to work or care for family members.
CMPD has said such an ordinance would face “significant constitutional hurdles.”
A City Council committee that oversees the Police Department directed CMPD attorney Mark Newbold to study how an ordinance would work. The committee could discuss the issue again later this year.
The North Carolina chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union said it’s concerned the zones would curtail people’s freedom to associate.
“This is something we are very concerned with,” said Susanna Birdsong, policy counsel for the ACLU in Raleigh. “There is the whole innocent until proven guilty question. And how might this impact somebody who is arrested rather than convicted? There would be an appeals process, but how that would impact them in the short term?”
But Eugene O’Donnell, a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City, said the ordinance would allow police to focus on high-crime areas effectively.
“This is strategic as opposed to making indiscriminate stops,” said O’Donnell, a former police officer. “This is data-driven and says ‘Who are the offenders and where are the hotspots?’ Now, you can go and cool the hotspots down.”
The idea also could help some offenders avoid trouble, O’Donnell said.
“I don’t want to be paternalistic, but you could save some people from themselves,” he said. “In crime, sometimes you have to separate people from the environment they come from.”
The city is trying to respond to an increase this year in violent crime, including homicides.
Council member Al Austin, who represents northwest Charlotte, including some areas plagued by crime, discussed the proposal with former chief Rodney Monroe earlier this year. Austin has said it could be a good tool for dispersing entrenched problems such as prostitution and drug dealing.
But the city has also said it’s concerned with how it treats minorities.
Earlier this year, the City Council approved a civil rights resolution for police. It emphasized the city will not engage in racial profiling, among other provisions. Council members approved the resolution as the city was preparing for the trial of former officer Randall “Wes” Kerrick, who shot and killed Jonathan Ferrell, an unarmed black man in 2013.
Critics raise concerns
Charlotte defense attorney George Laughrun, who represented Kerrick, said he believes zones that ban citizens are unconstitutional. While judges have long put restrictions on people convicted of crimes, Laughrun said citizens generally have the right to move freely and to assemble peacefully.
“I would be going through the roof” if this was applied to a client, Laughrun said. “It really infringes on Constitutional rights.”
He added: “It’s like the old days when they used to say, ‘You better be out of Dodge before sundown.’”
Robert Dawkins, a Charlotte community activist, said the proposed rule would disproportionately impact neighborhoods heavily populated by minorities and the poor.
“The zones are never going to be in Dilworth and Myers Park,” Dawkins said, citing two affluent, predominantly white neighborhoods. “There is plenty of white-collar crime. Are they going to be stopped from seeing their relatives?”
Dawkins said the proposal is shocking because Charlotte City Manager Ron Carlee last year removed the box on city job applications that asks candidates to disclose their criminal records.
The council’s discussion of the safety zones has sparked interest nationwide, and the city has been adamant that nothing has been decided yet.
“No ordinance has been proposed,” Newbold said Friday. “The concept of public safety zones is still in the discussion stage. I have looked at several versions that other cities have implemented, but the committee has not made a decision to move forward.”
Council member Claire Fallon, who chairs the safety committee, was skeptical of whether a safety zone would work when it was first discussed last month. She said she still has concerns.
“You get into issues of civil rights, of human rights, of stigmatizing a community,” she said. “I won’t allow that.”
How it would work
The safety zones would be modeled after prostitution-free zones created by the city a decade ago.
If CMPD found an area where there was an uptick in crime, the police chief could declare it a safety zone. Council members wouldn’t have to approve it.
A person arrested inside their home wouldn’t necessarily be affected. The trigger would be whether a crime took place on public property, such as a sidewalk, street or parking lot.
Prostitution, fighting and drug dealing could qualify as a public crime, thus triggering a possible exclusion.
Within five days, the person could appeal the prohibition on grounds such as needing to care for children inside the area or living or working there.
If the person pleads guilty or is convicted, he/she would be barred from the area for up to a year. If the person is found not guilty or if the case is dismissed for any reason, the person could return.
At a safety committee meeting two weeks ago, CMPD discussed a study about a city prostitution-free zone that was created in 2005. One of the areas targeted was the Camp Greene neighborhood west of uptown.
In the two years before the ordinance was passed, CMPD received 534 calls for service inside the areas that would become part of the prostitution-free zones. In the two years after the ordinance was passed, the number of calls inside the zones dropped by 35 percent, to 350.
But some of the crime was pushed out to nearby areas. Within 1 mile of the zones, the number of service calls increased from 182 to 294 – a 62 percent increase.
Overall, the number of calls in and around the zones went down.
The city’s prostitution-free zone ordinance has lapsed and is no longer in effect.
Geoffrey Alpert, a criminology professor at the University of South Carolina, said creating safety zones might push crime from one area to another.
But Alpert said the potential benefits outweigh that risk.
Making neighborhoods safer, he said is key to economic development and other positive outcomes.
“This will solve more problems than it creates,” Alpert said. “Crime is about people and places. We’re pretty good at dealing with the career criminals. Now, let’s go after the places.”
Portland, Ore., created drug and prostitution exclusion zones in 1992. But former Mayor Tom Potter led a push in 2007 to end the zones, saying they just moved criminal activity to a new area and that African-Americans were being disproportionally excluded from the areas.