Officer Brian Austin scans the apartment complex’s parking lot as he makes his rounds. No clues or traces of disruption at Woodbridge Apartments today – but he does have some landscaping advice.
“Most people don’t think that a tall bush could cause a crime,” he tells the apartments’ manager as they inspect the shrubbery by the rubbish bin. Those unremarkable plants can create a hidden area where people are more likely to commit crimes, he explains.
Austin is one of five officers whose daily beats are filled with this kind of minutiae. Together they from Project PHOENIX, an 18-month-old Cary Police Department effort to make the town’s apartment communities safer.
The program polices a growing number of local apartment complexes, and the results so far are promising. PHOENIX’s earliest participants bucked overall crime trends. While apartment crime was higher in 2011 than recent averages, PHOENIX communities saw drops or smaller spikes in reported crime and calls to police.
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According to a Cary News analysis, Cary police received 11 percent more crime reports from apartment complexes in 2011 than the last four years’ average. A sample of a dozen early PHOENIX adopters, meanwhile, averaged only a 4 percent surge.
Each of the unit’s officers covers a handful of complexes. Besides patrolling, they regularly deliver printed reports of recent crime and incident calls at the apartments, which the managers use to address or evict problem tenants. Officers also suggest safety improvements such as improved lighting and visibility for the properties.
The exchange of information can speed up casework and help apartment managers clean house, according to Lt. Ken Quinlan, the new unit’s head. In one recent case, a PHOENIX officer notified a property manager of a felony drug suspect living on the premises. The manager then found that the suspect was an unauthorized tenant.
“It opened up a lot of information for the property managers,” Quinlan said.
Wish to expand
The effort now serves more than half of the town’s apartment complexes – a total of 33, from an initial set of 15, Quinlan said. He hopes to win grant funding for two more officers, and the unit is set for about $470,000 of funding in the next fiscal year.
PHOENIX, by the way, stands for Promoting Healthy Occupancy through Education, Networking and Information eXchange. Quinlan is careful to say that the program doesn’t see renters as criminals. Cary police data shows that apartment tenants aren’t significantly more likely to commit crimes. However, more people per acre does mean more crime per acre.
A lot of the trouble comes from people’s close proximity, with noise complaints topping the list at Woodbridge, said Rich Taylor, the complex’s manager. But it’s a bit easier to handle with an official police report in hand, he said.
“It’s basically giving us a sense of empowerment,” Taylor said. The police “help us, we end up helping them.”
So far, PHOENIX officers have built relationships with more property managers than tenants, but the unit aims to know the communities better within the year, Quinlan said.
For some apartment residents, the idea of a stepped-up police presence is a mixed blessing.
Anas Loiahmouti, 23, has already seen plenty of sirens in his three months at the Cary Pines community, he said. The frequent sight of police makes him worry that there actually is a crime problem in the area, he said.
“It’s safe, but they make you feel unsafe when you see them 24/7,” he said. It takes a careful balance, he explained.