Thursday, May 21, 2009

Police response to Westwood 'boarders' because of liability, safety issues

In a memo to Cincinnati City Council, city manager Milton Dohoney Jr. says that the Cincinnati Police Department's response to a group of Westwood residents who took it upon themselves to board up a problem property was done to protect them from possible criminal liability – and from criminals who might be hiding inside.

The memo is in response to an e-mail from Mary Kuhl of Westwood Concern to Cincinnati City Councilmember and chair of council's Vibrant Neighborhoods committee Roxanne Qualls seeking answers on why the police response was so swift and heavy against people who were just trying to do the right thing.

On April 1, following several calls to various City departments and to the police, a group of five residents, including Kuhl, decided to take it upon themselves to board up an abandoned building at 2186 Harrison Avenue that had become a haven for drug dealing and prostitution.

Dohoney says that standard procedures were followed for addressing the building's issues, but were held up on several occasions due to changes in ownership.

A call to secure the property came from the police that morning, and permission to enter the building was received from California-based building owner Stonecrest Investments, LLC that afternoon.

A vendor was contacted to perform the work.

"The vendor agreed to expedite the work, which was completed that afternoon," Dohoney says. "PMCE [Property Maintenance Code Enforcement] inspected the work to verify that it complied with the Municipal Code."

City beats them to the punch

In her e-mail, Kuhl says that she had received a number of phone calls during the day saying that the City had found out about the residents' plan and was planning to send a contractor to secure the building before the group got there.

"What we found when we got there was that indeed the City or a contractor for the City had been there and boarded up the front door, installed two padlocks and left," she says. "Mind you that the rest of the ground floor windows and doors were NOT boarded up, and were accessible to anyone who wanted to break in."

That's when her group began boarding up the windows with plywood and picking up litter in the yard.

Kuhl says that Jane Prendergast, a reporter with the Cincinnati Enquirer, came to the site and asked what the group was doing.

After finding out what the group was up to, Kuhl says that Prendergast placed a call to Department of Community Development director Michael Cervay, and he wasn't happy.

"Approximately 20 minutes or so after she had made that call, I received a phone call letting me know that the police were on the way," she says.

Since they were done, Kuhl says thay they picked up their tools and left; Kuhl watched the upcoming events from her neighbor's front porch.

"What happened after we had left is that, about five minutes later, not one, not two, not three, not four, but five police cars showed up!" Kuhl says. "Five police cars for five middle-aged people simply boarding up a problem, vacant property! Good grief!"

An attempt to "go after" Westwood?

Kuhl believes that the response was an attempt to "go after" the people of Westwood, all initiated by Cervay.

"This is just one of many problems Westwood has had with Michael Cervay and how he operates his department...which is not so good," Kuhl says. "All he has to do is 'keep his head down' and he gets to do what the hell he and his staff wants to do regardless of what any elected official tells them to do."

But Dohoney says that the windows were intact and permissible under the Cincinnati Municipal Code and that an assistant city manager, who was acting in Dohoney's stead, directed Cervay to call the police because of safety and liability concerns.

"These steps were requested to protect the citizens as it had been alleged that the property in question was the scene of criminal activity," he says. "Furthermore, it was an attempt to warn the citizens that by entering the property, and doing additional boarding, could constitute trespassing and be considered damaging private property."

Dohoney says that the City is looking at better ways to inform citizens, like expanded use of the City website, and is looking at ways to expedite the abatement process.

"To avoid the cycle of re-issuance of orders each time a vacated property changes hands, the Department of Community Development is working with the Law Department to establish a system to record a Code Violation Notice, or Affidavit of Fact, against the titles of derelict properties," he says. "However, this may require new code provisions and language to enable the recording of Affidavit of Fact to serve as adequate service of Notice of Violation."

Taking these steps would help reduce or eliminate citizen frustration, Dohoney says.