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Why the city is spending nearly $1 million to fix its "broken windows." 

Blight Busters

People at the Diamond Suites Motel at 1501 Robin Hood Road were up to no good. According to Lt. John Dixon and a Community Assisted Public Safety report, the motel had the sixth-highest number of calls for service of any address in the Third Precinct, an area that stretches all the way from the West End to Highland Park. Citizens and police had suspected much nefarious activity there.

The team of police and code-enforcement officers was ready to issue whatever violation citations it could. But what few of them seemed to expect was the spate of arrests that followed.

Dixon and a code-enforcement team went in. Drug and prostitution arrests were made that day. The team brought in the city's tax-enforcement manager. It turns out the owner, Ahmed Mufti, had not paid city lodging taxes for several years. The property was shut down.

On Sept. 11, the Commonwealth Attorney's Office successfully prosecuted Mufti on embezzlement charges stemming from the unpaid taxes. Mufti pleaded guilty to petty larceny, a misdemeanor, and received a suspended 12-month jail sentence. The judge ruled that he is not allowed to own or operate a business in Richmond again.

Mufti's neighbors were there to see it. They wore buttons that read: "Neighbors have rights too." They want their community back, once and for all.

The busts at the Diamond Suites Motel are a clear example of the way a new coordinated program to fight blight can work. And if the Community Assisted Public Safety (CAPS) program develops the muscle its proponents say it will, it could leave criminals without a place to do business.

The city is so convinced that CAPS can curb crime and promote healthy neighborhoods that in a time of budget shortages it has set aside $900,000 to hire 10 city employees needed to implement the program citywide by March 2002.

At its core, CAPS is a philosophy that aims to change the way citizens and city administrators think about and deal with urban blight, by coordinating their efforts to force lax property owners to fix conditions that may contribute to crime.

Blighted property is among the toughest problems cities face. For years, Richmond officials have struggled to control it. Police have made arrests, city code enforcers have cited violations, and the Commonwealth Attorney's Office has prosecuted cases under Operation Squalor, a city initiative that allows neighborhoods to sue negligent landlords over property considered to be a public nuisance.

"We know that public safety and blight are related," says Deputy City Manager Connie Bawcum. A neighborhood's number of vacant buildings and nuisance properties is the greatest predictor of police response, she observes. But until recently, the city hasn't had the resources to marry the two.

Likewise, investigations for code violations have been based on complaints from citizens. "It was all we were staffed to do, all we could do. And it was not getting the job done," Bawcum says.

The scenario is a prime example of what Richmond Police Lt. John Dixon and a new breed of crime-stoppers call the "broken-window theory," which links crime to blighted property.

"If a window gets broken and you leave it that way, when you return there will be more broken windows," Dixon says. "Criminals go where they think people don't care."

That prompted city administrators and concerned citizens to find a solution. The idea for CAPS was born. While it's hardly revolutionary, its supporters hope it's innovative enough to work.

CAPS is based on the idea that individual agencies — like code enforcement and police — can't solve urban blight and crime by themselves. CAPS provides a vehicle for community input and support. Who knows better than residents what's going on in the neighborhood?

Whereas in the past the focus has been on servicing a quantity of calls, Bawcum says, CAPS focuses on the quality of the response, using every available resource.

"We're not just going to attack with one, but every tool we can muster," says Bawcum. To be sure, she says, CAPS is a wake-up call for property owners and criminals who have broken or ignored the law for too long. "Under CAPS we're aggressively going after property owners on every code we can think of. The city hasn't done that in the past."

Borrowing from programs that have been successful in places like Norfolk and Phoenix, Ariz., a pilot program for CAPS was launched last fall in Richmond's North neighborhood team zone.

Essentially, CAPS works this way: A five-member "code action team" (CAT team) composed of officials from code enforcement, police, fire, health and zoning is formed. Citizens identify problem properties. (Each property must be considered a crime spot or threat to public safety.) Property and business owners are notified and given an opportunity to comply. If they don't, the cases go to court for noncompliance with city code. If and when this happens, citizens attend the hearings to show the court they mean business.

In early September CAPS reported results from the first year.

In the north zone, 23 properties — 11 residences and 12 businesses — were inspected. Dozens of violations were found and arrests were made. Charges included prostitution, concealed weapons and drug possession. Of the 12 businesses inspected, only two were found have the proper licenses. Some were closed and others quickly corrected the offense. There were three after-hours clubs closed for operating illegally. Court actions are pending.

Diamond Suites owner Ahmed Mufti has had his day in court. Despite numerous code infractions and an embezzlement charge, Mufti will not go to jail. But sending property owners to jail, Bawcum and Dixon say, was never CAPS' mission. Rehabilitating the property and recouping losses is.

Already Mufti has paid $21,000 of the $24,000 he owed in taxes to the city. Three additional felony charges were not prosecuted but will be hanging over him and will show up on his record. The motel has been sold at auction. (The restaurant on the site, Dabney's, has never been accused of any criminal activity in respect to the motel.) The new owner plans a complete renovation and will open the business as a Knights Inn.

City Council had no problem earmarking the cash for CAPS to expand, says 1st District Councilman Manoli Loupassi, chairman of the public safety committee. "It was not a hard sell," he says. "It's an investment to create better neighborhoods and reduce crime. It's a relatively small investment for the hopeful return."

Next week, the second phase of CAPS rolls out into the Old South zone. A new code enforcement team has been selected. Seventeen residents have signed up to be citizen representatives. And 20 properties have been suggested as ones to track.

CAPS citizen representative Zoe Ann Green is excited about the prospects. "We hope our focus will signal to the people out there to take care of their property before it becomes a problem," she says. If not, there are consequences to pay, she says, adding: "Our goal is to be the city' s fire in the
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