This column continues the discussion of place-based, problem-solving policing. As I indicated in my last column, the key to community wellbeing and public safety is to use the police less, not more—to deploy law enforcement sparingly, and only for problems a community and city cannot solve by themselves. Place-based initiatives have been implemented in cities all over the country, in red states and blue, demonstrating again and again the promise and potential of “the criminology of place.”
“This was a really bad store. We’d been watching it for months.”
Maris Herold was a captain in the Cincinnati Police Department. We were sitting at a conference table on the second floor of CPD headquarters, talking about policing. Nobody needs to urge Maris to lean in. She’d been on the force for more than 20 years, and speaks with a steely, unadorned directness. No flash, no hand waving, no profanity. Well, no profanity until you get to know her, and even then, not a lot.
She was describing an operation she ran when she was Commander of the Fourth District, which includes some of the most troubled parts of the city. Police had wired confidential informants and sent them into Sulli’s, a small market at the corner of Washington and Sullivan, where they had no trouble buying crack and heroin from employees. One time, an informant bought a gun. It was all on tape. (I’ve changed the name of the market and the streets.)
“I could’ve busted them easy,” Maris told me. “Shut them down. Taken their liquor license.” The police run operations like this thousands of times a day, in markets, homes, and street corners all over the country. And the prosecution would’ve been even easier: Call the informant, play the tape, wave the gun and drugs during closing argument. Maybe it was a two-day trial, three if you had a slow judge. In fact, the case probably wouldn’t have gone to trial. The guys who sold the drugs would’ve pled guilty in exchange for a reduced sentence, like tens of thousands of people charged with a crime in the United States every year. And the timing was right—Cincinnati was in the middle of a spike in violent crime. Shootings and murders were up from the year before. Both the arrest and the prosecution would have made good headlines, and the guys probably would have been shipped to one of Ohio’s 28 prisons.
Sulli’s is a low-slung, concrete block affair, painted ink blue, with a single entrance and exit at the front of the store. It sits in an old part of the city, a couple miles north of downtown. Maybe ten parking spaces line the outside of the store, like teeth on a comb. Drivers can pull in easily from the street, but most people walk to the store from the surrounding neighborhood. Two-thirds of the neighborhood residents are black.
The blocks nearby are a mix of small, single family homes built in the last few decades and larger homes with broad porches that date to the interwar years, along with a few red-brick Victorian townhomes that are even older. For the most part, the homes are well kept, the yards well-trimmed. The streets are clean. A few houses are noticeably run down, but they’re the exception. There’s no graffiti to speak of, and no trash in the streets or yards.
The market is in a poor part of town, no doubt. But no one could fairly use a word like blight to describe this area. Across Sullivan Street and a little to the south is an Italian bakery and café that has been in the neighborhood for more than 30 years. Now it has free WiFi and fresh baked bread. Just south of the café is a luxury car dealer.
Inside, the tiny store is crowded and cramped. You might be tempted to call it a convenience store, but it’s about a quarter the size of the typical gas station/market you see at every highway intersection and suburban strip mall. Its two narrow aisles are crowded so close together that when a young man walked by me, we both had to turn sideways so he could pass. You can walk the length of each aisle in six or seven steps. One of the owners stands in a small cubicle behind bullet proof glass while the other deals with the customers at the register.
The shelves and coolers are crammed from floor to eye-level with chips, cookies, soda, cereal, and fruit drinks, high in sodium and processed sugar but low in nutritional value. Beer and malt liquor are sold in six packs, singles, and quarts. Cigarettes and rolling paper are behind the counter at the front of the store, just inside the door.
But take a closer look. Alongside the colas, chips, and crackers, within reach of the beer and single-wrapped pieces of beef jerky, are milk, orange juice, oatmeal, and fresh bananas; diapers, paper towels, soap, and light bulbs; extension cords, toilet paper, and pencils; behind the counter, next to the cigarettes and cigarillos, are the pain relievers, cough syrup, and eye drops. The man who passed me in the aisle bought a 12 oz. bottle of orange juice and a quart of Magnum Malt Liquor.
It is the only store like it for blocks around. “This is where poor people shop in the city,” Iris Roley told me. Iris is a community activist. Like Maris, she has lived in Cincinnati all her life. But unlike Maris, Iris is black. She’s part of a small but tenacious group of activists and religious leaders in the city, mostly black, who have dedicated much of their adult lives to reforming police practices in Cincinnati. She was one of the plaintiffs in a lawsuit filed by the ACLU against the Cincinnati Police Department and the city in 2000. She explained, “For a lot of people, they can’t just hop in the car and drive to Trader Joe’s. I told Maris, ‘you can’t close that store.’”
And she didn’t. Rather than shut it down and arrest a few more low-level dealers, Maris decided to make it a better and safer market. She wasn’t being soft on crime or acceding to the misplaced demands of a community activist. She was acting on the latest research into what scholars call “the criminology of place.” In the end, nobody was arrested at Sulli’s and nobody went to jail. Nobody was prosecuted. No property was forfeited, no licenses lost. Sulli’s is still open and is still owned by the same people.
But the employees who sold the gun and drugs are gone. Those are the owners behind the counter. A prominent sign posted on an exterior wall warns, “No Drug Dealing. No Loitering. No Prostitution. We Call Police.” A large street light, newly installed, now shines down on the corner from its position at the edge of the lot.
Fixing the market at Washington and Sullivan preserved an important community resource and implemented the most effective and forward-thinking approach to crime control and community wellbeing. “Now it’s a good store,” Maris told me. Iris agrees. “It’s an important part of the community.” Maris calls the operation at Sulli’s a complete success. “What we did at Washington and Sullivan, I want to do throughout the whole city of Cincinnati.”
What happened at Sulli’s? Some of the changes were environmental and structural. These changes involved the application of a body of research known by its initials—CPTED (pronounced “sep-ted”)—which stands for “crime prevention through environmental design.” Other changes were in the management and control of the space, in this case by replacing the employees with owners. Solutions like these will naturally vary from place to place; practically by definition, problem solving resists a one-size-fits-all approach. And to those who wonder, “where did the crime go?” the answer is “nowhere.” When a city changes places, researchers tend to see not a displacement of criminal activity, but a diffusion of benefits; nearby places get better—more on all of this in subsequent columns. For now it is sufficient to close this column with this point: the place-based, problem-solving techniques employed at Sulli’s restored the market and improved the community without expanding the carceral state. That’s success.