CITY OF NORFOLK, VA
Norfolk Establishes Community Based Environmental Enforcement Programs
In the spring of 1994, an event occurred that proved to be a catalyst for change in how the City of Norfolk responded to illegal dumping and a wide range of other environmental violations. A citizen called 911 one midnight to report that there was a strong, gasoline-like smell in the street that seemed to be coming from a storm drain. The City's Hazardous Materials Response Team, or Hazmat, a division of the Fire Department, was called to investigate. Hazmat first examined the storm drain catch basin and noticed an oily sheen. No source for the sheen was noted nearby, so Hazmat began to trace the storm drain line in both directions. At one end, the storm drain emptied into a tributary of the Chesapeake Bay, where an oily sheen was also found. At the other end, the storm drain line was traced to a commercial property where a business specializing in ship tank cleaning was located.
Through the front gate, Hazmat observed a hose coming out of a tanker truck that was pumping fluids into a storm drain catch basin on the site. This catch basin was connected to the storm water line that led to the outfall. Hazmat requested the business owner to cease the pumping, and then notified the City's Storm Water Division, in the Department of Public Works, to respond. At that time, neither Hazmat nor the Storm Water Division were trained in criminal investigations, so neither took samples of the fluids leaving the hose in order to try to match them with the substance entering the Chesapeake Bay at the outfall. The Police and Fire Marshal's Office, who were trained in criminal investigations, were never called to the scene. The Coast Guard was finally called, but failed to maintain a proper chain of custody for the samples they took. As a result, no criminal case could be brought against the company for the discharge, and the City spent over $50,000 to clean up the petroleum product in the storm drain and at the outfall.
A Task Force Is Established
At a subsequent debriefing, it was discovered that the City staff who responded to the incident did not know who to call to assist in the investigation, or even what some of the other City departments or agencies could provide in the way of assistance or support for an environmental crimes case. At this same meeting, it was also noted that the incidence of environmental crimes in the City was increasing.
In order to better handle responses to environmental crimes, in 1994 the Mayor and City Council authorized the City Attorney's Office to establish the Norfolk Environmental Crimes Task Force, which is the first of its kind in the state of Virginia and is chaired by Deputy City Attorney Cynthia B. Hall. In order to ensure the broadest coverage, a representative of every City department was invited to participate, including Police, Fire, Health, Public Works, Utilities, Parks and Recreation, General Services, City Planning and Codes Administration, and Human Resources.
The Task Force established four initial goals: 1) to enhance communication and cooperation within City government and with other government agencies; 2) to revise the Norfolk City Code to make it more stringent and enforceable; 3) to prosecute violators of environmental laws to the fullest extent possible, and 4) to educate the public about the adverse environmental effects of illegal dumping and other environmental crimes.
As a first step, the Task Force set up regular monthly meetings. Initially, each department gave a presentation on their operations, equipment, training and procedures, to educate other departments. A fax tree detailing every department's emergency contact person was developed. A "Core Response Team" was created, comprising representatives from Police, Fire, Health, and Public Works, who would receive special training in incident response and evidence handling. >From that point on, whenever an environmental crimes case arose, the Core Response Team would respond as a group, and would involve other departments as needed.
Once the Environmental Crimes Task Force and the Core Response Team had been established within City government, the next step was to coordinate effectively with other state and federal enforcement agencies. In 1995 the City Attorney's Office developed a Regional Environmental Crimes Task Force, with representatives from the U. S. Justice Department, U. S. Attorney's Office, the U.S. EPA, the FBI, the Coast Guard, the Corps of Engineers, U. S. Customs, Naval Criminal Investigative Service, Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, Virginia Department of Emergency Services, and seven local cities from the Tidewater region of the state, including Norfolk. This Regional Task Force also meets monthly to exchange information about violators and prepare joint investigations on illegal dumping and hazardous materials cases.
That year, the Norfolk Task Force developed and implemented mandatory training for code inspectors and supervisors in all City departments on proper protocols for handling environmental crimes cases. Weeklong refresher classes that include instruction on new protocols are given twice a year.
The Task Force undertook a long, hard look at the Norfolk City Code, to determine what laws could be used against environmental violators. What the Task Force found were outdated codes providing nominal penalties. For example, a person dumping 10,000 tires in a City drinking water reservoir could only be charged with a "littering" code violation (the only law on the books at that time that fit the crime), resulting in a paltry $250 maximum penalty for a serious and egregious violation.
Having decided that Norfolk's "littering" code was inadequate for serious offenses, the City's Task Force drafted an entirely new Environmental Offenses Code, which was adopted unanimously by the City Council in 1996. This code, another first of its kind in the state, has become a template for other Virginia municipalities that are drafting or amending environmental laws. The maximum penalty under Norfolk's new Environmental Offenses Code is a Class 1 misdemeanor, punishable by a $2,500 fine and/or 12 months in jail for each day of offense. (Under Virginia law, a City's local code can only provide for penalties up to a Class 1 misdemeanor. Felonies are written under state law.) In addition, the new code also requires the judge hearing the case to order the responsible party to clean up the violation.
Norfolk's Environmental Offenses Code now specifically covers situations ranging from littering to the dumping of hazardous materials in a storm drain, the improper disposal of tires, and even the illegal abandonment of derelict boats. Moreover, the code permits the City to go after "passive" violators (those who allow or permit a violation to occur) as well as "active" violators (those who actually commit the unlawful act). Once convicted, illegal dumpers must also provide the court with proof that they have properly disposed of the materials they were ordered to clean up. The code has also been used creatively by Vice and Narcotics Police Officers in situations where suspected drug dealers who are fleeing the scene have thrown packets of drugs on the ground.
To beef up enforcement of the City's code, in 1996 the Norfolk City Attorney assigned a prosecutor full time to handle environmental crimes cases. Prior to the implementation of the Task Force, a prosecutor was not assigned to handle cases in Police Court but only cases coming before the Court of Record. (In Virginia, a Police Court is a Court not of record. Cases are appealed from Police Court to Circuit Court, a Court of record, where the violator gets a brand new trial). Now, the Deputy City Attorney handles the prosecutions in Police District Court and, when they are appealed, in Circuit Court.
It is now the City's policy to seek jail time and/or a fine in all environmental crimes cases, which now average over 200 new cases a year. Restitution is also sought for any costs associated with the investigation, including the cost of police time, use of city vehicle, cell phones, photos or videotaping. Since 1996, Norfolk has recovered over $100,000 per year from violators in restitution alone, an amount equal to nearly 100% of the costs associated with investigation and prosecution, and places these funds in a dedicated account for future responses or cleanup costs. The Deputy City Attorney also requests that all violations be remedied within a set time and, if the violations are not cured, immediately seeks sanctions. At the sentencing or plea-bargaining stage, many jurisdictions obtain fines but do not require violators to correct the problem; that is not the case in Norfolk, where the City demands and obtains full compliance and cleanup from the guilty parties. As a result, 100% of the violations charged have been fully remedied.
For less serious offenses, the City requests that violators be assigned to perform community service work in lieu of jail time. To date over 100 violators have been assigned to the Offender Cleanup Program, where they have collected more than 10,000 pounds of litter, been assigned to work at recycling drop-off centers, and have removed graffiti from dozens of locations. The Offender Cleanup Program is managed by the Norfolk Environmental Commission, which is the City's Keep America Beautiful affiliate program and is part of the Public Works Department.
The Commission supplies the cleanup locations, equipment, offender supervision, and maintains records of community service performed. The Commission also reports illegal dump sites and requests surveillance from the Task Force. To help the public identify and report environmental crimes, the Commission also worked in partnership with the Health Department and Storm Water Division to produce 10,000-plus public education pieces in the form of brochures, refrigerator magnets, bumper stickers and car litterbags, and publicizes locations where motor oil and household hazardous waste can be safely and legally disposed.
Before the inception of the Environmental Crimes Task Force, very few charges were brought under the old "littering" code because, as some enforcement personnel noted, the penalty was not sufficient to justify the effort. To ensure that information concerning the Task Force and the new Environmental Offenses Code was widely disseminated, the Task Force trained every Fire, Health, Zoning, Building, and Code inspector on the new code and how to present an environmental case in court. The Task Force also teaches this same curriculum at the Police Academy and to the Police Chief's staff, to ensure that all of the City's 700-plus police personnel are aware of the new environmental laws and enforcement tools.
Since that time there has been a phenomenal increase in the number of cases brought against violators, with code inspectors and police officers issuing an average of ten new environmental crimes charges each week. The most common violations involve the dumping of motor oil down storm drains, the dumping of demolition debris and tires, and improper disposal and storage of hazardous waste. This is one recent example of how seriously the courts deal with these violations: a police officer recently observed a person walk across an apartment complex open area and toss an orange juice container on the ground. A wastebasket stood just ten feet away. The officer asked the person to pick the container up and dispose of it; the person refused and was issued a violation. The judge who heard the case imposed a $500 fine and 30 days in jail, neither of which was suspended.
Due to the burgeoning caseload and in recognition of how environmental crimes impact residents' quality of life, the Fire and Police Departments reallocated resources to provide consistent coverage on these issues. Fire Chief Haupt established a Hazardous Materials Investigation Unit in the Fire Marshal's Office, comprising one supervisor and two investigators who inspect all facilities where hazardous materials are stored. The unit also investigates environmental crimes and is part of the Core Response Team. Police Chief High established an Environmental Crimes Unit in the Police Department, assigning one officer full-time to investigations and to act as liaison with other police officers on environmental issues. The result has been a high level of collaboration between the two Departments on environmental crimes.
To educate the public about the serious effects of illegal dumping and other environmental crimes, the Task Force has developed a hotline number for citizens, and partners with the local "Crime Line" to offer rewards leading to the arrest and conviction of environmental violators. The Task Force has developed public service messages for radio, as part of car litterbags and refrigerator magnets, and for insertion in utility bills, to let citizens know how they can report illegal dumping. Members of the Task Force regularly speak at civic league meetings and teach a Citizens' Academy on Environmental Crimes, a four-hour class held five times a year, to familiarize the public with typical violations seen in the field.
The public response has been excellent, with calls to the hotline averaging four to five per day. Based on this and other information, the Task Force has identified "hot spot" dumping areas and has had new "No Dumping" signs installed to indicate that these areas are under surveillance. In some cases, fake pole cameras were mounted to deter dumpers who would believe they were being filmed.
Using the Team Approach to Address Blight and Other Neighborhood Issues
Since the Environmental Crimes Task Force was formed in 1994, the most important development has been the fact that each City department no longer works in a vacuum. City departments began to talk to each other, then to develop partnerships, and now they approach complex issues as a team, using a multi-faceted, problem-solving approach. Norfolk's Environmental Crimes Task Force was so successful that it was used as the model to develop two additional municipal teams to deal with neighborhood and blight issues.
Norfolk is an urban city with older housing stock. Citizens began organizing in late 1997, challenging the City's leadership to deal with specific neighborhoods that were deteriorating. Many citizens felt that the code-enforcement process -- as it related to conditions like dilapidated buildings, junk vehicles, trash, high weeds and grass -- simply took too long.
In response to these concerns, in 1998 the Mayor and City Council authorized the establishment of a Code Enforcement Evaluation Team and Neighborhood Environmental Assessment Teams (NEAT). The Code Enforcement Evaluation Team is a multi-agency task force that evaluates City departments responsible for code enforcement, and the codes themselves, to ensure that the laws are stringent and that appropriate departmental policies and procedures are in place to enforce them.
To make sure that residents had input in designing solutions to neighborhood problems, each of the City's seven Council members designated several citizens to be members of the Team. They have been an invaluable part of the process, helping to develop an assessment tool to evaluate departments involved in code enforcement; identifying and eliminating the causes for delays in getting neighborhood problems solved, and helping to establish a new "zero-tolerance" policy for violations like high grass and weeds. When Team members looked at internal communication among field staff of various code enforcement departments, they discovered that every department had a different radio frequency channel and could not "talk" to each other while in the field; since then, a "chat" channel has been instituted to provide across-department communication.
Based on the Team's recommendations, which the City Council unanimously endorsed, the City's codes relating to other environmental issues including nuisances, rat and mosquito control, commercial vehicles, junk vehicles, animals, trespassing, vacant buildings and demolition have all been revised. Of equal importance is the fact that all City inspectors and police were also given the authority to enforce all of the City's codes, eliminating departmental jurisdictions and allowing for the broadest coverage for enforcement. Team members are currently reviewing the City's Solid Waste, Water and Hotel Codes.
In January of 1999, members of the Code Enforcement Team's Codes Review Committee lobbied the Virginia General Assembly for state enabling legislation, to give localities new tools to combat neighborhood blight. As a result of their efforts, 12 new blight bills in areas never covered before were adopted by the Virginia General Assembly and took effect on July 1, 1999. One key new section concerns "spot blight," which allows localities for the first time to acquire actual title to blighted properties through a condemnation process. Prior to this new law, the best a locality could do was to sell the blighted property at a tax sale to a new owner who was hopefully more responsible. By acquiring title, localities now have control over whom the property is sold to, and Norfolk has instituted a background check to screen candidates.
To assist the City's code inspectors in preparing environmental crimes cases for court, the Code Enforcement Team also developed a mandatory, weeklong training course that includes mock crime scenes and courtroom presentations. Citizens also expressed a need for training on what codes the City enforced and what constituted code violations, so a Citizens Environmental Codes Academy was established in March of 1999. The Academy is a four-night course that is held four times per year; during these three-hour sessions each of the City's code enforcement departments describes what they do and their enforcement procedures. The Academy has been so popular that there is a waiting list, and an advanced course is now being planned.
In addition to the Code Enforcement Evaluation Team, in 1998 the Mayor and City Council also authorized the establishment of six operational Neighborhood Environmental Assessment Teams (NEAT). Each NEAT Team is responsible for a different area of the City, divided by police sector, and their purpose is two-fold: 1) to intervene in crime-generating activities of occupants or owners of property where illegal activity occurs, and 2) to effectively and efficiently use existing manpower and resources by focusing efforts on chronic violations using targeted team inspections.
NEAT Teams include staff from Existing Structures, Environmental Health, Police, Zoning, Fire, Public Works, Animal Control and other City departments as needed. The theory behind the team approach is that what one inspector cannot do alone, a whole group can handle effectively, so the NEAT Teams work in partnership with citizens, civic leagues, neighborhood watch groups and businesses, to seek out and eradicate chronic violations.
Prior to the NEAT Teams, each code inspector would go out into the field and handle his/her one area of responsibility, which resulted in piecemeal and delayed enforcement. The City then implemented Citywide "sweeps," where every property in Norfolk was inspected at least once a year by a group of inspectors. The problem with this approach was that many of the properties "swept" each year had no violations and so the City was wasting resources. In 1995 for example, code inspectors "swept" over 204,000 properties, of which only 7.4% (about 14,000 properties) were in violation, at a cost of 20,000 inspector-hours.
When the NEAT Teams were created, it was decided to target the 7% of properties found to be in violation with 100% of City resources. Regular inspections still continue in all areas of Norfolk, but now the focus has shifted away from broad sweeps, in order to concentrate on targeted team inspections.
The NEAT Teams are expected to conduct monthly team inspections of the most chronic code violations in their assigned sectors. A chairperson coordinates data collection and makes the monthly report available to City staff and residents. The teams monitor and follow up on the status of chronic properties to ensure continued compliance. The teams are also trained in legal processes, case preparation and courtroom testimony, so that they can be ready for legal action when it must be taken against violators.
The NEAT Team approach has already paid off. From August to December of 1998, the six NEAT Teams targeted 52 properties with chronic violations, issued 143 violation charges, and saw 91 percent of those violations corrected within 30 days. Local residents and civic leaders are pleased with the results so far. "The biggest thing that has occurred is an attitude change," said one resident. "And it's contagious. We can now get ahead of the curve and be proactive instead of reactive." Another civic leader said, "Honest communication and the free exchange of ideas between the City and residents has led to more satisfaction with and confidence in the code-enforcement process. The results prove that a team approach to chronic violations really works in Norfolk."
The Norfolk Environmental Crimes Task Force assists other localities in setting up task forces and drafting new laws, and representatives regularly speak at seminars and conferences about their activities. In 1996, the Task Force was awarded the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Partnership Award, for its "extraordinary contribution to chemical emergency preparedness and prevention programs."
For more information, please contact:
Cynthia B. Hall
Deputy City Attorney
City of Norfolk, Department of Law
810 Union Street
908 City Hall Building
Norfolk, VA 23510
Phone: (757) 664-4529
Fax: (757) 664-4201
J. Thomas Cochran, Executive Director
1620 Eye Street, NW, Washington, DC 20006
Telephone (202) 293-7330, FAX (202) 293-2352