Dayton is a city of approximately 170,000 people in southwestern Ohio, and is perhaps best known to many as the hometown of Orville and Wilbur Wright. Like many cities, its local economy had experienced dramatic declines in heavy manufacturing in the last half-century, leading to downtown blight. But the city had remained a hub for aerospace and aviation technology, and in recent years concerted efforts were launched to bring redevelopment and new industry to Dayton’s historic core. Before this redevelopment could be successful however, something needed to be done about the “Corner of Chaos.”
Located in the traditional and historic center of downtown Dayton, in front of the American Building at Third and Main Streets, was the Route Transit Authority (RTA) bus hub. In addition to all the buses that loaded and unloaded on the sidewalk, the intersection also had high pedestrian and vehicular traffic unrelated to the RTA. It was impossible to determine who was waiting on a bus and who was there just “hanging out.” Services provided by RTA were regularly disrupted due to disorderly behavior and criminal activity—including fights, robberies, drug sales, and open-air drug use by large groups of youth and young adults. These groups created an intimidating environment for many of RTA’s customers and passing pedestrians, and the area was regularly featured in the local news. The Dayton Daily News dubbed the RTA bus hub as the “Corner of Chaos” in 2003 and the label unfortunately stuck. With its headline-ready nickname, disturbances at the infamous intersection received full coverage by both the print and broadcast media, and this eventually gave the City of Dayton a bad reputation throughout the region.
Many came to perceive the entire downtown area as unsafe because of the media coverage of RTA hub disturbances. This perception fueled even more television and print media coverage, with the reporters frequently asking uninformed citizens, “Do you feel safe in downtown Dayton?” Newspaper articles throughout 2003, 2004, and 2005 decried the constant disruptions occurring at Dayton’s center. The perception was that citizens walking down the street were simply attacked by unruly youth hanging out in this area. In fact, there were no documented instances of such incidents occurring. The Dayton Police Department believed that usually the criminal activity involved parties that knew each other and that disturbances were the result of old grievances bubbling to the surface or drug sale disagreements. But this knowledge was not enough to help control the environment—and especially not public perception of the situation—at Third and Main.
Working with the RTA, Dayton PD sought to better understand the environment around the “Corner of Chaos” in order to develop an effective and permanent solution to its chronic problems. Riders, citizens, and students were solicited for their opinions through surveys and public meetings and crime data of the area was carefully scrutinized. Initially, the activity appeared consistent with the transportation of high schoolers traveling to and from school—which was the anticipated outcome based on popular opinion. An actual review of arrests and summons from the January 1, 2009 to May 10, 2009, however, revealed that out of 142 arrests at the hub, only 27 of those arrests involved juveniles. This indicated that school age children were not the problem they were believed to be. Review of arrest data revealed that most arrests around this facility involved adult offenders, the use of drugs, and the sale of drugs. The data suggested to the police that drug dealers went to this location to sell their wares (primarily marijuana) to local high school students. The students, in turn, hung out at the hub to buy marijuana and socialize with friends. Additionally, the data indicated that certain offenders were repeatedly arrested at this location for the same offenses.
Previous attempts to tame the chaotic hub focused on “no tolerance” and arrest approaches which had proved wholly unsuccessful. Armed with the new information and analysis, a comprehensive approach that made use of CPTED (Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design) principles and partnerships with other city agencies was developed and implemented in late 2009. Some of the most successful pieces of the new plan included:
In 2009, forty-seven incidents required three or more officer crews to respond to the Corner of Chaos, and it was these large response incidents that were attracting the media attention and driving the public fear. During the first quarter of 2010, only six incidents required three or more crews to be sent to this location for a single incident, and none resulted in negative media coverage. This was a dramatic improvement that went a long way in removing downtown safety concerns. An after-action rider survey also documented the impact of environmental improvements at the hub. For the survey question, “How safe do you feel when you are in the transit center?” the respondents chose a number on a progressive numeric scale from low (1) to high (5). The survey showed an increase at level 3 from 19 percent to 25 percent; an increase in level 4 rose from 20 percent to 23 percent; and the increase at level 5 grew from 43 percent to 48 percent. And unlike in the initial surveys in 2008, no respondents rated the hub’s safety below a 3.
But beyond the crime and survey data is the huge burden that has been lifted off of the shoulders of the entire community. Large disturbances and the resulting bad press have simply not occurred since the changes have been implemented. Crime is down, calls for service are down, and citizens no longer feel the previous unease when looking at the area. Everyone is encouraged due to the tremendous progress that was made in such a short amount of time. Thanks to the numerous design changes, the RTA hub is now an orderly and well-managed environment that looks hip and urban and is viewed by many as a community asset. And the RTA and Dayton PD now work cooperatively to check up on each other to assure neither party lets the hard-won progress fall off. Bringing order to the “Corner of Chaos” was a community-wide effort achieved not through strict enforcement, but through cooperative problem solving.
- Lt. Larry Faulkner
Dayton Police Department