This is the blog for Robert Vincent, Chief of Police for the Gulfport (Florida) Police Department. Please feel free to leave comments, but keep in mind that anything appearing on this page may be subject to retention and disclosure in accordance with Florida public records law.

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Monday, April 25, 2011

Police and Code Enforcement

Lots of folks are talking code enforcement lately. It seems some would like to see a greater effort on the part of the city to address violations that make the place appear unsightly. There is some validity to that argument. Studies have shown that residents in blighted areas are much more likely to fear crime, even when actual crime is no higher than in other areas. That begs the question: how much should police be involved in the code enforcement process?

It may seem logical for police to handle the city's code enforcement function (we already have officers patrolling the streets, and they already have authority to enforce the laws), but there are many reasons I believe it is a bad idea.
  1. Code enforcement is a process. Every step follows an established procedure and is documented to ensure consistency and to make sure that follow-ups are completed in a timely manner. It must be done this way so there can be no validity to a claim that one property owner is treated differently from another and to ensure that problems are not neglected once identified. This degree of consistency and documentation requires a great deal of clerical support. For every enforcement action initiated, a significant percentage of the effort involves administrative tasks handled in the office rather than in the field. The city does not have sufficient support staff to take on this work, which means police officers themselves would have to take time off the streets to perform the required clerical duties. I think most would agree that is a bad idea.
  2. Code enforcement officials rarely have to deal with Constitutional issues. Because enforcement does not typically result in any kind of seizure, the provisions of the 4th Amendment usually do not apply. With police officers, however, the Constitution is always a concern. Imagine, for example, a complaint about rotting vegetation in a back yard. If a code officer peers over a fence to confirm the violation, no rights will have been violated because the code officer cannot seize persons or property. If a police officer (with authority to make arrests and seize property) does the same thing, he could find himself faced with a claim for a breach of civil rights. This inherent conflict of interest makes it a bad idea for police to be involved in routine code enforcement.
  3. Police officers are charged with investigating criminal activity, which often requires that they develop and maintain open channels of communication with residents who can provide tips and other information. The people who provide this information are themselves often guilty of code violations on their properties. If police are asked to enforce these violations, it could have a detrimental effect on their ability to get voluntary cooperation from these residents in more serious, criminal investigations.
These are just a few examples that illustrate why I believe police should not be the primary tool for code enforcement. That does not mean, however, that we cannot help the cause. Our officers can and do report observed violations to the code enforcement officials, particularly when the code violations are contributing to an overall public safety problem.

So what is the solution? Not sure really. With one code officer and a fraction of a staff assistant, the city's resources are limited. Increasing the enforcement effort will require more people to do the work, and we're not exactly in a position to afford that right now. We'll just have to see what the future holds.