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Oregon fights loitering with classical music

Mon., April 4, 2011

Legislature may expand transit-stop tactic

PORTLAND – Just feet from a methadone clinic at a grimy crossroads in far east Portland, transit officials and police are hoping a touch of class will chase off the vagrants, vandals and ne’er-do-wells that loiter near a busy transit stop.

Since November, the regional transit department has approved the playing of classical music in an effort to ward off the kind of crimes that happen when people just hang around.

A bill making its way through the Oregon Legislature would expand the program to all light rail stops in Clackamas, Washington and Multnomah counties deemed high-crime areas by police or residents.

“Classical music” in this case means opera, chamber music, choral pieces and music requiring a full orchestra. On a drizzly Wednesday morning at a pilot site in Portland, it was Bizet’s aria from Carmen.

“L’amour! L’amour! L’amour! L’amour!” bellowed the mezzo-soprano from a speaker boxed by metal bars. On the platform, one man who looked to be in his 20s, decked head to waist in bright red, looked up at the speaker, then looked away.

He boarded the train, as did the rest of the people on the platform.

“There’s no one that just hangs around,” said Scott Nielsen, who has met the train at the stop for 18 months. Before the music “they wouldn’t get on the train – that’s how you’d know they were (loitering).”

The project was brought to Portland by police Lt. John Scruggs, a former neighborhood sergeant who heard of the program working in other cities and thought it was worth a try.

“It’s crime prevention through environmental design,” he said. “If you put rose bushes in front of your bedroom window, the burglar is less likely to break in through that window because they don’t want to get cut up.”

To Scruggs, changing the music is changing the audio environment. “Eighteen- to 25-year-olds are not the big ones into classical music because it’s not cool.”

Uncultured youth aside, the program has shown early signs of success, though the numbers are so small as to be statistically insignificant – the light rail stop had all of nine reported crimes in 2010.

Scruggs wasn’t the first to think of deploying classical music. In West Palm Beach, Fla., in the summer of 2001 police gave a similar program a chance at an abandoned building on a blighted street corner near downtown.

“I think some of the criminals got up there and destroyed our speakers,” said Dennis Crispo, the city’s assistant police chief. “There wasn’t a lot of community support behind it.”

Indeed, the project flopped after three weeks of “Bach, Beethoven-type of stuff,” Crispo said.

Crime theorists haven’t reached a consensus on whether such environmental changes actually deter crime or just push it down the block.

“If we create this classical music environment,” Scruggs said, “and you don’t see these loitering groups of folks, you feel safer.

“You may not actually be safer, but you feel safer.”


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