Eckert: Crime Free program 'has proven itself'

News-DemocratJuly 16, 2014 

Belleville Mayor Mark Eckert in a 2013 file photo.

ZIA NIZAMI — znizami@bnd.com

— The money used for one-time startup costs for the city's crime-free housing program will be enough to hire a fourth police officer to help with the program, city leaders said Wednesday.

The Crime Free Housing Committee unanimously agreed to recommend that the City Council hire another officer later this year due to the program's growth and success.

"We think the program has proven itself, the money has proven itself," Mayor Mark Eckert said to the committee.

The program was never meant to be a money maker for the city and projections for revenue and expenses, about $175,000, are on target, Eckert said.

The city implemented the program in November in an effort to reduce crime associated with rental housing.

Part of the solution is keeping landlords and owners informed by having responding police officers send rental incident forms to them.

Kevin Bouse, a landlord and one of the committee members, told attendees on Wednesday that he and other landlords would like to see police officers fill out rental incident forms every time they have to respond to a rental property.

Such documentation help landlords spot problems early on and build cases for eviction if later necessary, Bouse said.

But Belleville Police Chief Bill Clay explained that the crime-free housing ordinance clearly states when a police officer has to fill out an incident form.

Documenting every visit, such as when there is no criminal activity, places the city and officers at risk for violating privacy and other rights of residents, Clay said.

For example, officers do not fill out incident forms if they respond for a medical issue, missing persons report or disturbance by someone with a mental health problem.

And, officers do not fill out such a form to notify landlords if a tenant commits a crime elsewhere than where they rent, such as at Walmart.

"If there was no crime committed on that property, it should not affect their tenancy," Clay said. "This is absolutely beyond the scope of what this program should be... People have a Constitutional right to be left alone."

Bouse said he understood Clay's comments and just asked that officers were more consistent in filling out incident forms for issues within the scope of the ordinance.

As of November:

* The program has resulted in 73 evictions of tenants arrested for a felony or misdemeanor and four evictions of tenants for city ordinance violations.

* There have been 935 rental incident forms generated from police officers responding to rental housing for issues such as disorderly conduct, burglary, domestic battery and loud noises.

*Most of the owners or landlords of the city's 7,111 rental properties have taken the required training course.

About 43 have not complied but the majority of those landlords are new to the city, said Bob Sabo, director of the city's Health and Housing, and Building and Zoning departments.

The crime-free housing program's revenue comes from a $25 registration fee that each rental unit is required to pay each year to the city.

During the program's first year, committee members approved $56,407 for a vehicle for the program officers.

The rest of the money generated from the registration fees went to startup costs such as printing and envelopes and stamps to notify owners and landlords. There was also overtime paid to employees working after business hours and weekends to conduct the training seminars.

Without much of these costs this upcoming year, Sabo said the program will have the $85,543 it takes to hire a new police officer.

Two of the three police officers that help run the crime-free housing program were already working in the Housing Department and are not paid out of the crime-free housing program budget.

The 10-member Crime Free committee meets twice a year to assess the impact of the housing program. Six members attended the meeting; three were absent and one member, Patty Herr, recently resigned.

Herr, previously a property manager, served on the committee to represent the views of property managers in the city. Her new job title means that the city is now accepting recommendations for property managers in the city who could fill the appointed position.

Contact reporter Jacqueline Lee at jlee@bnd.com or 618-239-2655. Follow her on Twitter at https://twitter.com/BNDJLee.

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