Friday, July 8, 2011

New ordinance will help prevent crime on vacant property

I'm pretty excited to report about a new ordinance passed by the City Council that now is in effect. We wrote about it in our May Informant newsletter, and I've pasted that article below. In short, police were having a horrible time getting cases prosecuted on those who stole from and vandalized vacant homes. Many had been foreclosed on, and the banks that owned them refused to act as victims and prosecute. The new ordinance essentially makes Kansas City the victim, and it will allow us to punish those who destroy neighborhoods. Click to read the new ordinance.

Here's the Informant article explaining why this was so needed:

While there is no official “victim” to sign a complaint when vacant houses are burglarized or damaged, Officer Jason Cooley said neighborhoods are what suffers.

“An out-of-state bank or owner has no investment in the community,” Officer Jason Cooley of the East Patrol Division said. “They’re not going to come here as the victim for a charge in city court. Meanwhile, neighborhoods are suffering, crime rates are sky-rocketing and property values are declining.”

Officer Cooley is working with officials in the City’s Neighborhood and Community Services Division to create an ordinance that would charge those who burglarize and vandalize vacant properties. Right now, police can watch someone tear out and steal copper from a vacant home, and the person will serve no jail time if the home’s owner cannot be contacted. About 45 percent of burglaries throughout the city occur in vacant properties.

“In order for us to charge someone, we have to prove a crime occurred, we have to prove a specific person did it, and we have to prove a specific victim suffered loss,” said Sergeant Brad Lemon of the Metro Patrol Division Property Crimes Section. “Right now, we can do two out of the three. We can’t do the last one.”

The mortgage crisis that began in 2008 continues to ripple through Kansas City. The Kansas City Star reported on April 19 that the city had about 12,000 vacant properties, up 20 percent since 2007. Many have been foreclosed on and are now owned by major national banks. Those banks are generally unwilling to prosecute when crimes occur on the homes in their portfolio.

“We have had zero successful prosecutions on bank-owned properties,” Sergeant Lemon said. “Burglaries have been out of control the last three years.”

Arsons also have been problematic. Kansas City recorded arsons at 103 vacant buildings in 2010. But a new ordinance could finally force criminals who prey on vacant properties to face jail time. The ordinance is under legal review right now but could come before the City Council soon. It would prohibit anyone from entering, damaging, or stealing from a vacant property.

“In essence, the City would be the victim,” Officer Cooley said.

Officer Cooley started pushing for the ordinance after riding along with Cleveland, Ohio, police during a vacant properties conference in October 2010. Cleveland officers said the problem had gotten so out of hand that thieves were causing explosions by stealing natural gas lines from vacant houses. The new ordinance allowed Cleveland to list the city as the victim of these crimes when no property owner could be contacted. Assistant Kansas City Prosecutor Beth Murano said no one has challenged Cleveland’s law.

Neighborhood leaders strongly support the new ordinance in Kansas City, Officer Cooley said.

“Community groups are excited about anything that can help,” he said. “… A lot of times, we catch these jokers, but when we can’t locate a victim, we simply have to let them go. With this, at least we have something to take them to jail for.”

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