Recent breakthroughs in policing have slashed crime in New York City and other urban areas. But another development that promises to boost public safety has gone largely unnoticed. Lawyers have developed a new field that applies the lessons of community policing to law: community safety law. While its practitioners range from "community prosecutors" working for city governments to legal-services lawyers, what unites these diverse lawyers is a willingness to join the broad-based effort to strengthen communities by targeting quality-of-life crimes.
Community law successes are starting to pile up. For example, Boyd-Booth, an inner-city Baltimore neighborhood, was virtually unlivable, transformed into an open-air drug market by a vicious drug gang. Lawyers from the Community Law Center, a new state-funded legal-services outfit, stepped in and managed to get old housing-code violations enforced at properties the gang controlled, driving the drug dealers from the neighborhood—rather like using tax-evasion charges to jail Al Capone. Boyd-Booth is now one of the city's safest areas. In Portland, Oregon, a community prosecutor put a big dent in the downtown prostitution trade by threatening to enforce building codes to stop hotels from renting rooms by the hour to hookers.
Community law is catching on in New York, too. The NYPD now boasts over 50 precinct-level lawyers who help craft civil remedies to tackle drug-dealing bars, monster car stereos, and other quality-of-life blights. Thanks to them, the NYPD's civil enforcement unit shut down 712 illegal front businesses last year, and cops have seized noisy boom-box cars on the Lower East Side and closed a notorious crack house on Brooklyn's Palmetto Street.
It's far too early to say if the public's desire for safe neighborhoods will become a major concern of law schools and law firms. It is certain, however, that community safety law will take its place next to environmental law and poverty law as a recognized field, complete with law-school courses and professional associations. It's high time for citizens trying to save our neighborhoods to get the legal assistance too long reserved for those trying to destroy them.