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Wednesday, March 18, 2009 09:27 am

When the Crime Stoppers dumpster came to my street

Is this good police work, or a substitute for it?

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This dumpster, with a fake camera on top, warns potential renters and homebuyers that there's a drug house in my neighborhood.
PHOTO BY DAVID HINE

When I first heard about the new Crime Stoppers drug dumpster, I found it amusing. A trash dumpster, welded shut, painted orange, is stenciled with, “A suspected drug house is in this area,” and “Report suspicious activity 788-8427.” There’s a spaceship-like blue bubble-dome on top, caged in metal mesh, that tries to make criminals think there’s a surveillance camera inside, though there isn’t. Why a dumpster? “Helping to ‘clean up’ neighborhoods,” it says.

The idea, as I heard it explained, is that drug dealers aren’t very smart, and once they see the orange dumpster and know they’re being watched, they’ll move out or at least take their business elsewhere. I joked with neighbors that the dumpster would do more good for neighborhoods if it were unsealed and left open for people to dump their real trash, which most cities pick up but ours doesn’t. We surmised that drug dealers would probably find it handy to use as a desk for the conduct of their street business. I giggled at the thought of dealers, who are often so brazen that they hardly interrupt their transactions when police cruisers drive by, scattering in all directions when they see that fake blue dome giving them the eye.

Then last week they set the orange dumpster down in front of my house and the joke was over. True, it’s a block away from my house, far enough that I don’t feel personally implicated, but still I can see it from my living room window, and its orange blinking lights from my bedroom. I don’t much like what it says about where I live. If there’s a drug house there, there’s no sense denying it; we need to get rid of it. Is this the best way? If police know the location of a drug house, shouldn’t they concentrate on making arrests rather than advertising their suspicions?

First I knocked on the door of the house the dumpster sits in front of, at 808 E. Enterprise. I asked the guy in the downstairs unit, Brian Fuller, what the dumpster was all about. “I’m not doing anything wrong,” he told me. “Just a little whiskey now and then.” I said I wasn’t accusing him of anything, but did he think it would do any good? “I think it might,” he said, “if the bad guys see it.” The guy upstairs didn’t give me his name, but when I asked what it means he said, “It means what it says. Can’t you read?” But what does that mean about a suspected drug house? He said, “What, you want to buy some drugs?” No. He asked me for a nickel to help him buy a 40-ouncer and pointed out that the sign says “in this area,” not necessarily this particular house.

A neighbor who lives a few houses from the dumpster, and who keeps his ear closer to the ground than I do, told me there had been drug activity, even prostitution, originating at 808 E. Enterprise, but things have been quiet since the troublemaker moved out two weeks ago.

Next I talked to Officer Butch Slater, the spokesman for Crime Stoppers. He said the dumpster’s first location, on South 16th Street, was where police had made “controlled buys” and knew there was drug activity. The dumpster resulted in several tips right away, and word came that the alleged dealer moved out soon after the appearance of the orange box with a blue eye. But this location was more general, and the dumpster was placed as a favor to the Enos Park Neighborhood Association, Slater said, rather than as a result of undercover work. After several days of having the dumpster on my street, Crime Stoppers had received no calls. “This wasn’t one of the cases where something has been reported,” he told me. “There is a lot of traffic in that area and we have arrested people in that location in the past. But not specifically have we had a call about drugs at that location.”

Isn’t there some danger, I asked Slater, that the dumpster will scare away as many potential renters, home buyers and real estate brokers as it does drug dealers? “That I can’t answer,” Slater said. “The program hasn’t been in effect long enough to get statistics on that.”

Maybe I worry too much. Glen Beckman owns a rental house on Enterprise just across from the dumpster. When he saw me nosing around, he came over to talk. “I question whether it will do any good or not, but I’m kind of neutral on it,” he said. Noting that his place is for rent, I asked whether it will keep him from attracting tenants. “They wouldn’t even notice.”

We’ll see how this goes. If the Crime Stoppers dumpster helps the police by getting good tips in an area of known criminal activity, then it’s probably worth the cost in negative PR. But if this becomes a substitute for the kind of strong police work that results in arrests, if the dumpster is just a way to fool neighbors into thinking something is being done when it really isn’t, then it is doing more harm than good.

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