Portland's neighborhood prosecutor cleans up the city

Sweating the small stuff
By DEIRDRE FULTON  |  July 13, 2011

When Portland Police Chief James Craig announced at a June 28 press conference that he was leaving the city to become Cincinnati's chief, he took a moment to list what he considered to be the highlights of his two-year tenure. In addition to lauding the police department's senior lead officers and work with the youth community, he specifically celebrated one "phenomenal" employee whom he credited with "changing the fabric of our most challenging neighborhoods."

He was talking about Trish McAllister, whom he hired last year to serve as Portland's (and Maine's) first-ever neighborhood prosecutor — a city attorney who deals only with civil violations such as public urination, aggressive panhandling, trash dumping, and disorderly houses (a/k/a that apartment building next door whose tenants are always throwing loud parties). She reports to the police chief, as opposed to elected District Attorney Stephanie Anderson (whose office deals with Cumberland County's criminal cases).

Craig considers this a boon: "The key is, she's in the building," he says, pointing out that McAllister attends police meetings to teach officers how to deal with nuisance violations. Craig adds that while there was some resistance from the district attorney's office at first, now there is "overwhelming support" from that entity.

Deputy District Attorney Meg Elam echoes that claim. McAllister is "a complementary presence," Elam says, beefing up city ordinances and offering options in "some situations that didn't warrant criminal prosecution . . . but are still troublesome." The neighborhood prosecutor position, she says, wasn't designed to prosecute criminal violations of state law, but adds a collaborative element to fighting what Elam calls "neighborhood trouble spots" — which heat up, incidentally, during the summertime.

The job was funded by a federal grant through July 1; that the city council made her position permanent in this year's budget is further testament to McAllister's successes.

"I think there's very few positions that have had such a positive influence in such a short period of time," says Ed Suslovic, District 3 city councilor and a member of the public safety committee who has worked closely with McAllister.

There's a theory behind the neighborhood prosecutor's work: "Broken Windows," a philosophy developed by criminologists George Kelling and James Wilson in the early 1980s. The theory basically states that people are more likely to commit crimes in neighborhoods that look run-down or uncared for. Which is to say that if no one gives a shit about this place (as evidenced by this litter, that graffiti, this party house, that broken window), why not perpetuate the cycle by adding to the disorder. Nuisance begets nuisance.

"[A]t the community level, disorder and crime are usually inextricably linked, in a kind of developmental sequence," Kelling and Wilson wrote in their seminal 1982 Atlantic article, which introduced the theory to the public. "Social psychologists and police officers tend to agree that if a window in a building is broken and is left unrepaired, all the rest of the windows will soon be broken . . . [O]ne unrepaired broken window is a signal that no one cares, and so breaking more windows costs nothing."

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