MY LAST NERVE: Government-Empowered Hall Monitors

August 8, 2014

Inside Insight

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columbia policeOH GREAT. MY QUALITY OF LIFE IS NOW
THE MISSION OF CITY GOVERNMENT.

These are the facts. Just this week South Carolina was ranked the fifth most dangerous state in the nation by a LawStreetMedia.com report; the city of Columbia’s two major entertainment districts have a steady level of violent crime; and over the years, there have been a dismaying number of high-profile shootings, murders and mob beatings. Despite the rampant criminal activity taking place throughout the city, The State reported Tuesday that the city of Columbia, after a request from the Public Safety Committee, “has transferred its 20 code enforcers to the police department with the mission of getting homeowners, landlords and business owners to keep their properties in good condition.”

The 20 code enforcement officers would be part of a new “Quality of Life Unit” of the CPD. This unit would focus on a number of problems: residents who don’t put out their trash on collection days, zoning violators who work without proper permits, and those who allow parking on front yards. While these code enforcement officers wouldn’t be police officers, the CPD does want them “to be associated with the police department.” They’ll have uniforms and vehicle decals.

I feel safer already.

The State reported that code enforcers would work with property owners – “especially those who are too old or infirm to properly maintain their homes or businesses” – and help trim weeds, fix broken windows, and provide similar services. So essentially this new unit will go around looking for problems to solve and low-level violations to punish.

How is this a proper function of the police department – or any other government entity? And don’t give me the argument that this is nothing new because officers were already enforcing codes. Police Chief Skip Holbrook has said the CPD will need “more money to carry out the new mission.” With crime rates constantly in flux, the last thing we need is a lot of uniformed snoops and do-gooders telling people not to park on the lawn and not to leave trash bins on the road after collection day.

In fact, these code enforcers have been moved around to different departments in city government over the years, resulting in – as The State report puts it – “a mixed message to property owners.” So it seems code enforcement in this regard isn’t vital to the “mission” of any city agency. If that’s the case, does the Quality of Life Unit need to exist?

The most important concern here relates to property rights. The State reports that the unit “will team with the police department to get access to databases at the State Law Enforcement Division, the state Department of Motor Vehicles and the city’s water customer lists to better track down who owns properties.”

I have nothing against these enforcement officers, but should they really have access to a statewide law enforcement database? And why should they have access to DMV records or water customer lists? I’d like to think massive databases like those wouldn’t be open to every curious bureaucrat who wants a peek at who’s been naughty.

City property records should suffice for the unit to track down a property owner if there is a complaint regarding public health or public safety related to their property. We don’t need 20 enforcement officers – whose role city officials themselves apparently can’t define – wandering around Columbia looking for trouble.

Jamie Murguia is Director of Research at the S.C. Policy Council, The Nerve‘s parent organization.