The Crime-Fighting Fence and the Future

DTLA - Last week, Los Angeles Downtown News reported on one of the most unlikely crime-fighting tools ever to hit the community: a five-foot-high, black metal fence that in July went up around a small brick stoop outside the 7-Eleven at the southwest corner of Seventh and Olive streets.

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The fence appears to have solved a problem that bedeviled some area residents, workers and law enforcement officials for more than eight years. Yet while it has halted some aggressive behavior, and counts as a success in bettering one spot in the community, it also raises some thorny issues regarding accessibility and the physical environment that apply to the entirety of Downtown Los Angeles.

The article noted how, for years, police and the convenience store owner struggled with some of the people who gathered on the stoop, saying there were repeated incidents of theft and aggressive panhandling. LAPD Sgt. Jack Richter, who has spent more than a decade in the community, began talking with the store owner about the problem. They came up with the idea of the fence and established a unique partnership: The proprietor paid $800 for materials, and Richter and his partner showed up over three weekends to install the fence. The work was a volunteer effort, conducted when they were off the LAPD clock.

This is thoughtful and creative thinking. Even more unique, the officers were so committed to the community that they donated their time. It is fantastic to have police so tied in to the fabric of the neighborhood.

Downtown Los Angeles might see more similar efforts. The article reported that LAPD Central Division Capt. Howard Leslie is embarking on a campaign called the Environmental Crime Initiative, which will look at addressing law-breaking by making changes to the physical landscape. Leslie and Richter said future potential efforts could involve, for example, getting better lighting at problem spots, or perhaps raising the height of a cinderblock wall that people are climbing over.

This attempt to think differently deserves praise. When a problem like the stoop endures, and the traditional method of sending police to respond to crimes fails to spur change, it makes sense to consider new options.

That said, the best course of action is to proceed carefully, to ask a lot of questions, to consider each effort individually, and to ensure that changes to the physical environment also make sense in the context of the greater community. For example, the fence outside the 7-Eleven solved a problem, but physically it is far from perfect — the space is now off limits to everyone, and from Seventh Street it looks like a plant inside the fence is in jail. The store owner said other plants that had been placed at the site had been stolen in the past, but what if a line of heavy planters or some other immovable but more attractive solution than a fence had been placed around the perimeter of the stoop? Could that have worked? Could it have been done in a cost-effective manner? Can it still be?

Those kinds of questions and considerations must be raised in the future. Sometimes a fence might be the right approach. Other times a different response will be required.

The good news is that the police force is willing to think outside the box and work with the community. This is a strong point on which to build for the future.

© Los Angeles Downtown News 2016