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Police, Firefighters, Code Enforcement Officers "Sweep" Rome's Neighborhoods

 Neighborhood Enforcement Teams Increase Safety, Improve Quality of Life

Neighborhood Enforcement Teams comprised of police, firefighters, code enforcement officers, animal control officers and other City staff first hit the streets of Rome, New York in July 1998. Their mission, according to Mayor Joseph Griffo, was to look at every existing problem and use every existing law "to make life miserable for those who choose not to be productive members of our society." One year later, the impact of these Teams is in evidence throughout the City.

The Neighborhood Enforcement Team (NET) concept combines crime-fighting with other efforts to increase safety and improve quality of life for Rome residents. As part of an initiative dubbed "Operation Safe Neighborhoods," the Teams conduct saturation neighborhood "sweeps" in search of housing code violations and obvious public health problems. Increased police patrols of the same neighborhoods, including night bike patrols, reinforce the City's commitment to its "zero tolerance" of crime policy. Police Chief Merino Ciccone says his Department is using every means possible - including strict enforcement of all ordinances - to stop drug trafficking in the targeted areas.

Traffic checks also are being used in the neighborhoods to reinforce the "zero tolerance" message, and these checks of both vehicles and drivers produce additional arrests and citations under several City ordinances. Approximately 750 vehicles were stopped during the initial NET operation, and all drivers and passengers were interviewed.

The posting of "slum lord" signs in front of problem properties is one element of the NET effort to compel owners of the properties to remedy the problems that they pose to the neighborhoods. "The owner of this property," the signs read, "has been cited for failing to bring this property into compliance with city law." Each sign includes the name and address of the owner of the property being targeted.

Landlords receiving a code violation notice are given 10 days to respond; if there is a hearing on the violation, they are given a month to take action to correct the problem. If this is not done, a "slum lord" sign can be posted. More than 30 violation notices were issued during the initial neighborhood "sweeps," and City officials reported that many landlords in the targeted neighborhoods were not waiting for notices to start cleaning up their properties. They also note that the attention given to these neighborhoods has been encouraging to those owners who have continued to maintain their properties even though they find themselves surrounded by dilapidated buildings and garbage-strewn lots. "People have come up to me and said 'thank you' for the enforcement," says Mayor Griffo.

"I think we have been well received," adds Public Safety Commissioner William Fleet. "I think the neighbors appreciate what the Mayor is trying to do."

Rome officials also are quick to point out that their NET initiative is not limited to enforcement activities. NET members, for example, are serving as liaisons in efforts to resolve disputes between landlords and tenants. With a goal of giving both sides a fair chance to heard, they are finding that, in many instances, disputes can be settled before they lead to confrontations.

According to the Rome Observer Dispatch, the NET concept brought together several initiatives Mayor Griffo had been working on over the past year. Included were the Public Nuisance Abatement law, passed by the Common Council the previous February, which permits the City to "clamp down hard" on landlords who allow drug activity on their properties. While it enables the City to board up crime-ridden rental properties, the law provides for leniency for landlords who actively help secure the arrest of drug offenders.

Another law reduced the maximum allowable grass height from 12 inches to eight and permitted code enforcement personnel to mow property in violation of the law five days after notification - and to attach the bill to the landowner's property tax.

Within a month of the Mayor's launch of "Operation Safe Neighborhoods," Oneida County Executive Ralph Eannace announced that the County's Departments of Health and Social Services would be joining the City's NET effort. At the same time, Chief Ciccone announced that more than 140 warrants had been issued or arrests made in the Rome-Utica area as a result of "Operation Safe Neighborhoods" and the Mayor's month-old NET initiative. The Chief attributed about another 40 arrests for crimes such as driving while intoxicated to the stepped-up NET police patrols.

During the initial NET operation, nearly 200 living units were inspected and those with violations were reinspected for compliance. As a result of this activity, some serious problems were exposed: There were three City code/housing arrests, and six houses were posted as unfit for human occupancy. In addition, the operation produced 11 City Court warrant arrests, one administrative search warrant, four arrests for endangering the welfare of a child, and two arrests for cruelty to animals.

Another NET "sweep" was launched this summer in target areas where code violations were seen as likely, and in areas in which the Police Department receives large numbers of complaints regarding health and safety regulations. By the end of July, more than 65 houses, apartments and mobile homes had been inspected.

"The NET concept has demonstrated the power of government when it is focused on a problem," says Mayor Griffo. "Our neighborhoods have become cleaner and safer, and this provides an atmosphere of wholesomeness for families for which Rome has been recognized."

Additional information on Rome's Neighborhood Enforcement Teams is available from Kevin Colmey in the Office of the Mayor at (315) 339-7677.

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