The main goal of the Safer Cities Initiative (SCI) was to reduce crime in the Los Angeles, Calif., area known as “Skid Row,” an area with a large homeless population concentrated in a densely packed area of economic disadvantage. The section had high rates of crime and victimization, including open-air drug markets, prostitution, theft, robbery gangs, and vandalism. As an attempt to combat rising levels of crime and improve public order in the Skid Row area, the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) implemented the SCI as a 68-week program starting in 2005.
The Skid Row area was targeted by the SCI based on the high-risk characteristics of the area’s inhabitants. At the time the SCI was implemented, the area had a 2:1 ratio of males to females. At least one third had substance abuse problems, one fourth were mentally ill, and one fifth had disabilities. Approximately half of the homeless population had a high school education, less than one fifth were employed, and at least one fifth of the population consisted of homeless families. A large fraction of the Los Angeles County homeless population was located in Skid Row, and crime among the homeless was a serious issue in the area.
Program Activities/Key Personnel
The first law enforcement effort to address Skid Row began with a pilot program conducted by the LAPD in September 2005. Known as the “Main Street Pilot Project,” it sought to reduce the density of homeless encampments using fines and citations. After a successful implementation of the pilot program, the full-scale version of the SCI was launched on Sept. 17, 2006. Fifty full-time officers were stationed to the streets of downtown Los Angeles, where they broke up homeless encampments, issued citations, and made arrests for various offenses. Specifically, encampments along South Main Street between Fourth and Seventh Streets, the Historic Core, were proclaimed a public health nuisance, and sanctions were mandated by a Los Angeles City statute. In conjunction with this effort, portable toilets were removed from the area to deter homeless people from loitering. The LAPD also targeted crimes, such as public intoxication, drug use, and prostitution, all of which were believed to make the area more inviting to criminals.
In addition, four to five officers were placed on foot patrol in the Historic Core area to concentrate exclusively on handling nuisance offenses and maintaining order. One of the LAPD’s mobile command stations was placed near Skid Row to facilitate law enforcement efforts. Undercover vice teams were placed in areas believed to be open-air drug markets and hotbeds of prostitution. Lastly, a special undercover squad concentrated on local robberies.
SCI was based on the “broken windows” theory of crime, which posits a connection between neighborhood disorder and serious crime. The premise of this theory is that public order offenses signal that neighborhood residents either do not care to maintain their neighborhood or do not have the resources to do so. Thus if a window is broken and left unrepaired in a neighborhood, it is a sign that no one cares about the neighborhood enough to repair it. Theoretically, then, if public order offenses are left unchecked, the social order in the neighborhood will decline and lead to an increase in serious criminal behavior.
When evaluating the effects of the Safer Cities Initiative (SCI) in Los Angeles, Calif., Berk and MacDonald (2010) found similar patterns for all three types of crime (nuisance, property, and violent crimes). Each type of crime showed a significant decline around the time of the pilot program, and an additional small decline after the full-scale SCI was implemented. This trend was found in treatment and comparison areas; however, results of the regression analysis indicated a downward trend unique to the Central Division of Los Angeles, where the initiative was targeted.
The researchers observed a substantial decline in nuisance crimes in the Central Division during the implementation of the pilot program, and a smaller decline during the implementation of the SCI. However, the comparison areas showed similar declines in the number of nuisance crimes, as did the city overall. When controlling for these similar variations in the surrounding areas, the impact of SCI appears to be small.
As mentioned, however, the results of the regression analysis indicated some evidence of a gradual downward trend in nuisance crime that was unique to the Central Division. Specifically, after the pilot program began, the amount of nuisance crime in the area lessened, to about 76 percent of the amount before the pilot program started. After implementation of SCI, the amount of nuisance crime was reduced to about 70 percent of the pre-intervention (both pilot and SCI) amount.
The amount of property crimes varied over the 8 years of data, from a low of 21 crimes in a week to a high of 181. There was a significant drop in property crime in the Central Division around the time the pilot program was launched, and a smaller downward shift around the time the SCI was implemented. The comparison areas and the overall city demonstrated similar declines in property crimes.
The results of the regression analysis indicated some evidence of a gradual downward trend in property crime that was unique to the Central Division: After the start of the pilot program, the amount of property crime in the area was reduced to about 78 percent of its pre-intervention amount. After SCI implementation, the amount of property crime declined to about 65 percent of the amount that had existed before either the pilot or SCI had been implemented.
Similar to the other findings, there was a large drop in violent crime in the Central Division around the implementation of the pilot program and a smaller drop when the SCI was launched. As with the other findings, these patterns were experienced in the surrounding divisions as well as in the entire city.
The results of the regression analysis indicated some evidence of a gradual downward trend in violent crime that was unique to the Central Division. Specifically, after the pilot program began, the amount of violent crime in the area declined to about 84 percent of its pre-intervention amount. After SCI implementation, the amount of violent crime declined further, to about 61 percent of the amount that had existed before either of the interventions had been implemented.
Crime Displacement and Spillover Effects
Additional analyses were conducted to determine whether criminal activity was displaced to nearby areas, and no evidence of crime displacement in the comparison areas was found. In fact, there was evidence of spillover effects— effects detected outside the targeted area. That is, the pilot program and the SCI program produced indirect crime-reduction effects for all three types of crime in the surrounding comparison areas.