Around 1:30 a.m. on August 4, 2020, an armed carjacking took place on Arundel Place within the City of Clayton. Fortunately, no residents were injured, but in the aftermath of this incident the Trustees of Hillcrest and Officers of the Hillcrest Homeowners’ Association have received a number of inquiries about safety in Hillcrest. With this blog post, we would like to update neighbors on our response.
Is there a crime wave in Hillcrest? We are fortunate that serious crimes are rare enough in Hillcrest that we tend to remember them. When they do occur, they are disturbing indeed. Just before the 1st of the year, there were two burglaries at the east end of Arundel, and a an attempt at a third burglary. There was a car theft in July that can only be viewed as a crime of opportunity since the vehicle was left unlocked on the street, with keys in the vehicle. According to Clayton and St. Louis crime maps, there have been no other “Part 1” crimes in Hillcrest in 2020. The police, who have a regional perspective and are well positioned to comment on relative trends, tell us that we have an unusually safe neighborhood.
It would be easy to see a pattern of increased crime here, but hard to prove it. Incidents have occurred off and on throughout the years. Any pattern would have to be viewed through the lens of current societal problems. The COVID-19 pandemic has caused loss of health, life and livelihood for many of the most vulnerable individuals, and put severe stress on nearly everyone; meanwhile, calls for social justice have energized many, but perhaps licensed a few who are inclined to cause trouble. We may be primed to connect isolated and essentially random incidents in Hillcrest to these broader national movements.
Several neighbors have asked what safety measures we plan to take. As Officers and Trustees, we are considering what the goal should be for safety in Hillcrest. A goal of zero crime is unrealistic given our urban setting. Hillcrest has some characteristics of a private subdivision, but was never intended to be a walled enclave. Our goal is to thoughtfully consider the possibilities, with an emphasis on starting with “low-hanging fruit” to maximize safety and welfare of our residents, rather than first pursuing more draconian measures that could impinge on individual rights and lifestyles.
Most crimes, although not all, occur at night. Chief Mark Smith of the Clayton police has told us the most effective measure to discourage nighttime crime is porch lighting. The Trustees operate street lights in the St. Louis City portion of Hillcrest, and the City of Clayton maintains street lights in their area. These lights are designed to work in coordination with individually owned porch lights, rather than substitute for them. If you walk through Hillcrest at night, you will notice stretches of multiple houses that are not lit up. We urge homeowners to install lights along the front, and preferably sides and back, of their house, and put them on a timer or dusk-to-dawn sensor so that they will be lit at the correct time. We are trying to identify a handyman who could help Hillcrest residents with simple lighting solutions, but for many houses this may be as simple as flipping a switch.
Similarly, locking houses, garage doors and cars, and keeping valuables out of sight, is an effective and free intervention. The police tell us that most thefts are crimes of opportunity. We have to discourage criminal elements from viewing Hillcrest as easy pickings.
We are considering the role of security cameras. While cameras do not prevent crime, they do help solve crimes. Many of our homeowners have their own individually owned security cameras or video doorbells, as do most of our neighboring institutions. The police are aware of these cameras and have used the footage productively in recent investigations. The Trustees have the authority to install cameras in the Hillcrest-owned (St. Louis City) common areas. Placing them at our entrances would at least provide a baseline of video monitoring. We would need to buy these cameras, run electricity to them, provide Internet service, or else commit to querying them by hardwired connections when the need arose; and inevitably we would need to maintain them in case of degradation or vandalism. We will examine the cost-benefit tradeoff for security cameras by obtaining bids, while recognizing that we have no authority to install these cameras in Clayton, which makes up 90% of Hillcrest and where several (indeed most) of the crimes have taken place.
The other oft-mentioned security measure would be closing the Aberdeen and Arundel gates. This topic has been hotly debated for, one must assume, as long as the gates have been present; and one former HHA President argued without irony that the gates should be removed in order to settle the matter! In the recent carjacking, the perpetrators entered from Skinker, then escaped to the west, so it is unclear whether closed gates would have prevented the crime. Closing the gates may or may not prevent crime, but it definitely prevents emergency services from accessing Hillcrest in a timely way—creating liability if someone should allege that an ambulance couldn’t reach them in time. The east end of Aberdeen and Arundel is not set up to be a turnaround, so trucks would constantly be backing out or making 3-point turns in front of the houses at the end. Garbage, street sweeping and snow removal would be adversely affected. Vehicles can collide with closed gates (especially if the closures are intermittent, alternating or unexpected), resulting in costly repairs for both parties. Many of us at the east end love it when the gates are closed for special events, but the Trustees are not in favor of closing them full time.
A private security guard is unlikely to be a desirable solution. They are not sworn law enforcement officers and their functions are largely limited to providing a watchful eye and calling the police if needed. They can only be in one place at a time, and Hillcrest has at least six vehicular entrances and two pedestrian ones. A back-of-the-envelope calculation, assuming $30/hour for 10 hours per day for 365 days, adds $109,500 to the Hillcrest budget, which is approximately 500% of our current annual expenditures and would cost each household $500/year assuming that all participated; and doubtless, many would refuse.
We have to keep in mind that there are other dimensions of safety, besides crime deterrence. Traffic safety (speeding) is a perennial concern, particularly when schools are in session. Access for emergency services must be preserved. We must also consider the message that any safety measures could send. Closely spaced cameras, warning signs, patrols and locked gates all create an atmosphere of mistrust and exclusion—a contrast to the welcoming neighborhood that we aspire to be.
The Officers and Trustees plan to conduct a survey or organize a Town Hall to gain an understanding of our neighbors’ priorities for safety. In the meantime, we hope to reassure you that we are aware of the issue and trying to strike a balance between doing too little and too much. Please use a porch light on a timer, and encourage your neighbors to do so if their house is dark at night. Please lock your doors and keep valuables out of sight. And please approach any of the Officers or Trustees with your questions and suggestions.
Ian S. Hagemann, Trustee