Trouble spots, abandoned houses, targeted
Gresham Police Officers Jim Leake and Dan Estes are taking a new approach to police work. Based at the new Rockwood police facility, they're members of the new Neighborhood Enforcement Team, or NET, and their goal is to help make Gresham neighborhoods more livable and safe by using preventive and proactive measures.
Among the problems Gresham faces are the rising number of abandoned or vacant properties that are taken over by drug users and other squatters, and an increase in the homeless population, Leake said. Rockwood may be the neighborhood with the highest crime rate, but crime is spreading all over town.
We've talked to other law enforcement officers and code inspectors and share information, he said. We've all noticed a big influx of abandoned properties and squatters moving in.
The homeless population also has surged, he said, which means people are not only moving in to abandoned homes but sleeping in doorways of downtown businesses.
That's not to say that all homeless people are criminals, and both Leake and Estes say they pass out literature and try to guide homeless residents to agencies that can help them find housing and community resources.
Leake and Estes have been on the job for only a week, and they've been busy meeting with city officials including code inspectors, the city attorney and the city manager to let them know about the new team. They're also meeting with neighborhood associations and landlords to try to keep an eye on neighborhood trouble spots and offer their support.
We will be on the trails and our faces will be out there, Estes said. We will talk with people in the (transient) camps and talk to businesses about a wide range of issues.
The point of the team is to help make neighborhoods more livable by working on long-term problems like abandoned houses, overgrown lots, drug and party houses and excess garbage pile-ups, something cops on the beat don't have time to deal with in depth, Leake said.
What makes the partnership effective is that Leake and Estes don't have to answer routine calls but are able to concentrate on neighborhood trouble spots.
There are apartment complexes in Rockwood where criminals have taken over and intimidated apartment managers and neighborhoods where people are afraid to let their children play outside, Estes said. It's those neighborhoods where the pair are already using the legal system and other methods to get things cleaned up and enforce codes that can have properties condemned or have undesirable tenants evicted.
We're in uniform but are not tied to calls, when a lot of times you're so busy you just put on Band-Aids, Leake said. Instead we're working with code enforcement and social services on transient and landlord issues and follow things to the drug unit. We're a jack of all trades.
In other words, while officers responding to a problem can just address the problem at hand, the new team can take time to find out, for example, who owns an abandoned property overtaken by squatters and work with other agencies to bring legal action to board up the property and evict unwanted tenants.
The pair conducted a tour of one such property at 800 181st Avenue, a small dilapidated house within view of the Rockwood police station.
Trash and discarded, filthy clothing, shoes and other human detritus covered the driveway and spilled through a broken fence into the parking lot of a small apartment complex next door with a Now Leasing banner stretched across a balcony.
Small children peeked from a fence behind the apartment complex as Leake and Estes walked around the property, which includes a large metal building behind the house.
Watch your step for needles, Leake said as he approached the back door of the house and yelled out, Gresham police! Anyone here? Come out now!
As Leake and Estes entered the house, they stepped gingerly over dirty clothes and garbage covering the floors, and pointed out a hypodermic needle on a kitchen countertop and big holes in the flooring. The house had been boarded up, but squatters still broke in.
The large metal building behind the house had been locked, but someone had broken the lock. The building was a clutter of junk and old building materials. Leake pointed out a shopping cart in one corner.
It has no dust on it so someone put it here recently, he said. Locks are for honest people. It needs to be boarded up. Then they can't get in.
Estes said he has made calls to the owner of the property, with no response, and sometime this week the property will be boarded up. The next step will be to get a lien against the property and get the city reimbursed for the cost of boarding everything up from the either the buyer or the owner.
As they were leaving the property, Leake pointed to an open window in the attic of the house.
Someone's living here now, he said.
Leake and Estes are ideally suited for the job. Leake formerly headed the department's Landlord-Tenant Mentorship Program, where landlords got training at monthly forums and a day-long boot camp on fair housing issues and how to deal with problem tenants.
While he was working on patrol answering complaints, Estes often researched ownership of troubled properties and tried to find legal means to make them comply with city codes, which carries over to what he's doing now. And he's loving every minute.
We've only been on the job for five days but it feels like two weeks, he said. We both have ideas and we've been given creative license. We're all over the place.
Leake agreed about things moving fast.
Things are moving quickly and we're trying to cut down the load on the patrol guys, he said, but he and Estes have latitude in their response.
When we go to a property, if they (squatters) refuse to leave or open the doors, we will not force them, he said. But once we get a search warrant for (code) inspection, we can board it up.
That's the next step for the house on 181st Avenue, he said.
The eviction process is started when it's deemed uninhabitable, he said. The next step is to go in and remove everybody and I'm excited we can take the time.
Leake said the neighborhood will improve once the house is boarded up.
It will probably have to be torn down, but it would be worse to find the property in this condition, he said.