Amherst Police explore ways to curb partying through ‘environmental changes’ to property

  • WILLIAM LARAMEE

Staff Writer
Published: 1/24/2017 6:09:30 PM

AMHERST — Amherst Police, meet landscape architecture.

Police in recent months have turned to the concepts of environmental design — installing or removing fences and vegetation, enhancing lighting and improving security — in hopes of cutting down on partying hotspots in town.

“This is about how to reduce crime through subtle or significant changes to the environment,” said William Laramee, the Amherst Police neighborhood liaison officer.

One popular partying spot is at Townehouse Apartments in North Amherst, where large, grassy areas well hidden from the public roads and offering easy exits, have proven to be ideal spots for college-age people to hold large-scale parties.

Just a short distance away, a portion of Hobart Lane is an expansive field that is appealing during the evening, when the dimly lit area hosts night rages and low-key day drinking.

Police hope to address these and other sites in town through a strategy known as community policing through environmental design, or CPTED. The goal, Laramee said, is to counter the drinking culture and maintain tranquility in neighborhoods near the campus.

Amherst Police are partnering with the University of Massachusetts Amherst to study the concept at key locations in town.

For each property used as a gathering space, the layout is examined to discover the reasons for its appeal, and then advice is offered to the property owner or property manager for how to better control the site.

Laramee said part of his job is in using CPTED is to convince property owners that the people to whom they are renting don’t enjoy this partying atmosphere. “Landlords were under the impression that their tenants supported this (partying),” he said.

Eric Beal, neighborhood liaison for UMass Office of External Relations and University Events, said collaboration with property owners is critical.

“I also see this work as important for students safety, both for those students who are participating, and those who are residents,” Beal said.

Laramee said his interest in this form of community policing began two years ago when he attended a seminar in Rhode Island that included a presentation on how changes to the environment, both subtle and significant, can reduce crime.

Last year, local trainings were held at UMass to bring this form of public safety and planning into the community. A weeklong conference focused on doing case studies of areas that were known to be problematic.

At the Townehouse

Townehouse Apartments was examined by a UMass police officer, a Pittsfield police officer, and a dispatch supervisor at the University of Connecticut, identifying challenges that the property’s two quads caused.

“They do a fine-tooth evaluation of the property,” Laramee said, observing that at Townehouse those examining the site noted that visitors feel their behavior is out of sight, and numerous escape routes are available.

On Hobart Lane, Laramee said the observations have concluded that lighting is ineffective and dim, and the property owner will be shown this.

“We’re bringing them into the community at night to do a CPTED assessments of what we saw,” Laramee said. “It’s really dark up there, that was an issue really highlighted.”

He is already consulting with Eversource about improving this. “Installing lights may not solve the problem, but it’s one component of making it better,” Laramee said.

Some of the recommendations will come with a hefty price tag, while others are inexpensive. Either way, Laramee said, they could be less expensive than the liability incurred from events staged on the properties. An overgrown hedge at the corner of Phillips Street and Nutting Avenue, near an area where college-age people often party, was identified as a place that could be used to ambush or hide. This was removed as part of this community policing.

“You want to give a sense this place is cared for,” Laramee said.

Business community

The community policing through environmental design can also be used to help the business community prevent break-ins and other mischief.

Amherst Area Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Tim O’Brien said he recently filmed Laramee and UMass Police Lt. Damian DeWolf providing information about the CPTED so businesspeople can understand the principles, and then completed a case study of the Emily Dickinson Museum property on Main Street, where the strengths and weaknesses were showcased. This video will soon be available.

O’Brien said many principles are already used, but some are not.

“Having seen the presentation by two officers, I was surprised by some of the security risks that go unnoticed,” O’Brien said.

The community policing team did an audit for the new AmherstWorks space at the corner of Amity and North Pleasant streets as it was under construction last summer.

General Manager Jerry Guidera said the detailed report revealed a lot of common sense actions, such as keeping shrubbery away from the building and improving lighting. It also included lesser known improvements, such as how to position security cameras and making entrances to restrooms safe.

“They know where the bad guys lurk, and they’re better at identifying locations for cameras,” Guidera said. “They go beyond simple intuition and experience.”

Laramee points to the popular Antonio’s Pizza by the slice as putting into place the principles, such as the large windows overlooking the sidewalk that give customers an opportunity to help employees by observing the area in front of the restaurant.

Improving environmental design of residential and commercial properties should lead to lower call volume for police, Laramee said. It also supplements other things police, the town and the campus community are doing, including outreach to those living off campus, police enforcement and rental oversight through the town’s inspections, and messaging from staff in the Off Campus Student Center.

“What’s rewarding for me in looking at some of these efforts is that its brought people together,” Beal said. “A lot of work we do is building relationships and building trust,” Laramee said. “Eric and I have done a lot of outreach, door to door, discussed extensively we don’t want this occurring.

“It’s an ongoing activity, and we’re hopeful there will be some change,” Laramee said, who with Beal, DeWolf and Sally Linowski, associate dean of students, anticipate presenting at the International Town-Gown Conference in Eugene, Oregon this summer. “We’ve got people engaged and concerned, and people are talking.”

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.




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