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Reduce crime or send it elsewhere? The debate over ‘public safety zones’

CMPD officers B.E. Walsh and D.B. Sotto talk to Councilman Al Austin about their new walking beat patrols in the Beatties Ford Road area
CMPD officers B.E. Walsh and D.B. Sotto talk to Councilman Al Austin about their new walking beat patrols in the Beatties Ford Road area WFAE

Crime is a fact of life, and so is the reality that some neighborhoods will have more of it than others. But that doesn’t mean residents in high-crime areas are complacent. In Charlotte, many are pushing city officials to aggressively tackle crime in their communities. One idea that’s gotten a lot of attention calls for designated zones in high-crime areas that would ban people from those communities when they commit a crime there.

District 2 Councilman Al Austin is the main force behind the effort to establish public safety or exclusionary zones in crime-riddled areas. His district includes the Beatties Ford Road corridor, which police describe as a high-crime area.

On this particular day, at the busy intersection of Beatties Ford Road and LaSalle Street, a young man in an oversized coat and baggy pants walked by the nearby glass-enclosed bus stop numerous times. Finally, another young man, similarly dressed, approached him. They sat down and with heads almost touching; they talked briefly, shook hands and walked away. It was obviously a drug deal.

Doug Jones works in an office building directly behind the bus stop.

“A lot of youth hang out during the day, sitting at the bus stop,” Jones said. “I don’t know what they’re doing, but it doesn’t take hours to wait for a bus.”

Councilman Austin grew up in this neighborhood and agreed that the heavily used bus stop and nearby area have become a haven for criminal activity.

“The epicenter of things that happen are kind of here at Taylor and LaSalle. We have some drug sales and when you have drug sales that opens it up to other types of crime. We’ve had a shooting or two in the area,” Austin said.

As of mid-October, there were 11 homicides reported, 26 rapes and 308 auto thefts in Austin’s District 2. Drug offenses were cut almost in half from last year, but at 535 arrests, it’s still high.

Citywide, crime increased by 10 percent this year, violent crimes are up by nearly 18 percent, and Austin is getting fed up. He sits on the council’s safety committee and asked city officials to see how and if public safety or exclusionary zones would work in Charlotte.

It is still in the vetting stage, but city officials are considering establishing zones in areas that are experiencing an increase in crimes. A person convicted of a drug offense, shooting incident, prostitution or other type of serious crime in a designated zone would be notified that they are banned from that area for a set period of time. A violation would likely be a misdemeanor. Austin likes the concept.

“We have found our police officers may arrest someone but that person comes back and my neighbors, my senior citizens, they say, ‘We don’t feel safe, we’re feeling like our constitutional rights are being violated because we can’t come out of our homes,’ and that bothers me,” Austin said.

He worries about stigmatizing communities in his district, where there are also many homeowners, large churches and Johnson C. Smith University. But that concern wasn’t voiced during a “take back our neighborhood” march in his district last month. Many of his constituents, like Larry Littlejohn and Ann Hood, spoke out in favor of the zones.

“We need to start someplace, and if it’s put in place, we can evaluate it, see how it works and tweak it, and if it works for the community, I’m for it,” Littlejohn said.

“We have so much crime here, and so we can begin a process to eradicate some of these problems,” said Hood. “I’ve lived here over 50 years, and I don’t want to see it go down.”

The city established prostitution-free zones a decade ago for three years in the Wilkinson Boulevard area. CMPD attorney Mark Newbold, who is looking into the legality of public safety zones, says prostitution arrests simply increased a mile outside the zones – also the concern about public safety zones. Will they just push crime to another area?

“Displacement alone will not say the initiative is wrong, but one of the things currently being considered is if activity spikes up a mile outside the zone, we could either extend the zone or move the zone to that area for a period of time,” said Newbold.

Portland, Ore., had these zones in place for about 15 years. They were done away with in 2007 out of concern that they stigmatized communities and were enforced unfairly. Newbold says they are still looking at Portland’s program and vetting similar initiatives in other cities.

“The type of ordinances we’ve reviewed have variances that, for example, if you have a family in the zone and I’ve been banned under the proposals we’re discussing, there would be a variance that says someone could visit a family member in the zone to obtain social services, church service,” Newbold said.

But Councilmember Claire Fallon, who chairs the council’s Community Safety Committee, said she doubts those zones will ever be approved.

“I think we will not do it to begin with because we’re very aware that people have rights and civil rights,” Fallon said. “We are not going to do profiling; we are not going to stigmatize the neighborhood. We have to be cognizant of civil rights to walk in a neighborhood.”

There are several constitutional concerns to be considered, says Charlotte School of Law professor Jason Huber – the biggest being the 14th Amendment.

“The 14th Amendment provides several protections, due process of law, equal protection and fundamental rights, the right to hang out with family and friends,” Huber said. “Any ordinance will have to be narrowly tailored to consider all of those rights.”

Huber also cautioned that the zones could also be selectively enforced against the poor and people of color.

Newbold admitted that crafting the ordinance is challenging.

“The difficulty is the need for a public safety zone and the need to exclude people from an area is outweighed by some of those constitutional protections,” Newbold said.

As the pros and cons of the public safety zones are debated, Councilman Austin is moving ahead with other crime-fighting initiatives, such as getting the city to place bright LED lights around the troublesome bus stop, cut down a large tree that provided cover for criminal activity there and assigning police officers to walking beats. CMPD Officer B.E. Walsh and his partner began walking the streets in the Beatties Ford Road corridor last month.

“I love being out here talking to people,” Walsh said. “There are so many good people who live here and they’re just afraid. That’s why we’re out here now to make them less afraid. They’re going to see us more often.”

Austin likes the sound of that, but it’s not enough. He wants public safety zones here and in other parts of the city. He pointed to The Plaza near Milton Road where two men were shot and killed last month as an example of where the zones are needed.

“We can’t continue to go down this road,” a frustrated Austin said. “We’re almost like becoming, immune to the fact that these things are happening. So if not this (public safety zones), then what?

The council’s Community Safety Committee will discuss public safety zones later this month, and that committee will decide whether to send it to the full council.

WFAE is a member of the Charlotte News Alliance.