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Strategizing to Fight Crime

Along commercial corridors, even nonviolent crimes like panhandling and loitering can deter customers. Merchants often blame the police or shrinking city budgets for neglect of the problem.  

Those criticisms may be valid, but community groups can often do more than they realize to prevent crime, insisted Julia Ryan, national program director for the New York-based LISC Community Safety Initiative who, with her colleague Jason Cooper, joined more than 20 community developers at a recent meeting at LISC Chicago as part of the Commercial Corridor Brown Bag Luncheon Series. “If we rely on the police alone we’re really missing the boat,” she said.

A crime requires three things, she explained: an offender, a victim and a suitable location. Intervening at any point along this “crime triangle,” such as by altering the space or educating potential victims, can prevent the crime, she said.

To devise a safety strategy, Ryan and Cooper advised beginning with a small group of partners who have influence over the three points of the triangle, and then honing in on one section of your commercial corridor, or on the worst hot spots and perpetrators. One Rhode Island team in a community with a prostitution problem listed the main offenders and realized that there were only seven women, said Ryan. “They focused on offering services to that small group.”

Jason Cooper of the LISC Community Safety Initiative, who appeared with colleague Julia Ryan, talks with a police officer about community safety.

Ryan and Cooper gave a brief overview of a strategy called Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED), an approach born in the 1970s that focuses on altering a space with changes such as lights, locks and fences. Because of poor implementation and a narrow focus on the physical environment, however, CPTED “got a poor rap in many cities,” Ryan noted.

In more recent years, they said, CPTED has evolved to look not just at the physical space, but the economic and social factors that influence criminal behavior.

Basic principles of CPTED include creating unobstructed sightlines from the street or nearby buildings, maintaining an appearance of order such as by fixing broken windows and removing weeds, and “territoriality,” which could mean common flags along a business corridor. “It sends the message that the people care about this space, and they are organized and it may not be the best place if you’re looking to offend,” Cooper said.

“Second generation” CPTED also looks at building social relationships within a neighborhood to work on solving problems together. Ryan and Cooper suggested beginning with a safety audit. For a commercial corridor that might mean organizing a team of business owners, their employees, local police, and residents of both genders to survey the area for features that contribute to crime using a CPTED checklist (click to download).

Gloster Mahon, violence prevention business consultant at the South Shore Chamber of Commerce, said his neighborhood has involved chronic loiterers in community planning rather than trying to get rid of them, since they live nearby and just come right back.

Gordon Walek

Creative problem solving is the next step, said Ryan. In one neighborhood, a police officer helped recruit a business that would stay open late and keep eyes on the street during the evening hours.

Changing the physical environment can make a big difference, but alone it’s usually not enough, Cooper noted.  “We find we’re most able to sustain a decrease in crime when we’re able to knock out two [points], so we’re not just looking at a place, we’re changing the behavior of potential victims.”

Liz Griffiths DeChant, economic development director at the North River Commission in Albany Park, wondered how to deal with repeat offenders. “In our neighborhood, it’s these three homeless guys. How do you work on that piece of the triangle?”

Gloster Mahon, violence prevention business consultant at the South Shore Chamber of Commerce, said he’s done focus groups with loiterers in his neighborhood’s business district. “For people who are unemployed and aren’t in school, that commercial strip is where they get up and go to in the morning to see if they can get something to eat, to see if they can get small amounts of marijuana, to hang with their guys.” They can’t be run out of the area because they live just blocks away, he explained. Instead, he insisted, they need to be included in community safety planning.

James Kenady, program manager for the Southeast Chicago Commission, said a strategy that worked in West Garfield Park was to make it harder for drug dealers and buyers to do business—while at the same time offering them social services. “A lot of people aren’t aware of resources available in the city,” he said. “I’ve seen people, once they get motivated to turn their lives around, access those services.”

James Kenady, program manager for the Southeast Chicago Commission, recommended simultaneously making it harder for drug dealers and buyers to do business while also offering them social services.

Gordon Walek

Cooper agreed that strengthening the social safety net needs to be part of any community’s safety plan, but that it doesn’t always happen. “When we talk about crime, it can become ‘us versus them; us versus the gang members, or the dropouts.’ ”

Several participants mentioned the challenge of recruiting police for community safety planning given the staff turnover in most districts.

“That’s a pervasive challenge, and there’s no easy solution,” Ryan acknowledged. One idea, she said, is to have ready an introductory letter to the next district commander. “See if you can get current one to sign it [explaining], ‘Here’s what’s important to me about this relationship.’ ” If you can get the old commander to introduce you to the new one, even better, she said.

And if the police are reluctant to work with you on quality-of-life crimes like loitering, you might try to strike a deal with a prosecutor to step-up prosecution of those crimes for a limited time period, she continued. Then see if the police will agree to a crackdown, also for a limited time.

Keri Blackwell, deputy director for programs at LISC, said that she’s seen some New Communities Program groups contact their transferred commanders and encourage them to work with similar groups in their new neighborhoods.

Keri Blackwell (left), deputy director of programs for LISC Chicago, said New Communities Program groups try to introduce departed commanders to community groups in their new districts; Liz Griffiths DeChant (center), economic development director at the North River Commission in Albany Park, came looking for answers on how best to handle the chronically homeless.

Gordon Walek

Mahon said he works closely with detectives in his community. “I let them know I have resources; I’m trying to employ young men. Guys have come to me with my card [and say], ‘Officer so-and-so sent me.’ ”

Kenady said that one group he worked for promoted relationships with the police both by laying on the pressure—“when we didn’t get the response we needed, we flooded the office with calls”—but also by giving them plenty of credit for any success. “Try to include the commander and officers in press conferences,” he advised. “Rewarding them for the work that they do really was effective for us.”

This luncheon was sponsored by First Eagle Bank. LISC/Chicago holds brown-bag luncheons for commercial corridor managers every other month on a range of topics at 135 S. LaSalle St., 22nd floor. For more information about future brown bags and to RSVP to the events, contact Maria Hernandez at, or (312) 422-9567.

Posted in Economic Development, Safety


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