The physical characteristics of public housing developments have often been considered conducive to crime. Living conditions are crowded, there are often few entrance and exit points, hallways are frequently unmonitored, and there is little visibility or exposure to the outside world. Within the boundaries of such communities, criminal activity is largely invisible to outsiders, including police. In addition, there are often high numbers of undocumented residents, many of whom are believed to have criminal records. Combined with the poverty and limited economic prospects of legal residents, these factors engender crime and criminal victimization. Establishing satisfactory levels of public safety and security has consequently proved to be a serious long-term challenge for housing authorities and police departments. The problem has been exacerbated by the fact that housing authorities—largely dependent on the federal government for their funding—often felt neglected by local authorities and local police agencies. Out of this came the idea for dedicated public housing police (PHP).

Federal Involvement in Public Housing Policing

In 1995, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), responding to political and public pressure concerning the severe problems of crime in public housing, analyzed public housing policing in seven major cities (Baltimore, Maryland; Boston, Massachusetts; Chicago, Illinois; Cleveland, Ohio; Oxnard, California; Memphis, Tennessee; and Seattle, Washington) and gathered information from more than three thousand people including public housing residents, police chiefs, public housing police chiefs, officers, housing authority representatives, and city officials. HUD’s (1995) conclusions were as follows:

The results of comprehensive analyses by HUD indicate that housing police departments begin without the proper infrastructure, such as establishing of a mission, goals, objectives, performance indicators, personnel management systems, formalized coordination with local law enforcement, encumbrance of funds to pay for the services, an integrated system of guards, police, physical security, resident input on a regular basis, timely feedback to residents about crime and safety issues, a clear connection between police and tenant patrols, lack of policy manuals for police and security personnel.

As a result of this analysis, HUD produced a document to provide technical assistance about why and how to set up a PHP department, including goals, problems to be addressed, and policy manuals. Operational elements specified in the plan include staffing criteria, beat design and descriptions, shift and tour schedules, community policing, surveillance procedures, report procedures, crime prevention plans, and patrol strategies. Different recommended patrol strategies include vertical patrol, foot patrol, bicycle patrol, and motorcycle patrol. Also included are elements for a technical services plan, administrative services plan (including accreditation), and formal resident participation (HUD 1995).

Several large cities had already established public housing police departments before HUD issued its guidelines. By and large, these cities did not make wholesale changes as a result of the guidelines, although marginal adjustments may have been made. In addition, because HUD did not mandate the adoption of PHP departments by other authorities and established few reporting requirements pertaining to public housing security, no unified approach to public housing police was developed. Housing authorities proceeded with individualized arrangements that had a variety of components. A synopsis of steps taken by some of the larger cities now follows.


The Boston Housing Authority (BHA) created its Department of Public Safety (DPS) in the late 1970s because city police forces were not considered adequate to meet the needs of tenants and managers. The department began with six professional staff members who investigated crime and disorder complaints in public housing facilities and interfaced with the Boston Police Department (BPD). By 1983, it had grown to forty-two investigators, who were trained at the Basic Police Recruit Academies of the Massachusetts Criminal Justice Training Council. DPS currently falls under the jurisdiction of the BPD.

Thus, the BPD serves as the primary police force for Boston’s public housing, handling emergency calls, investigations, records management, and all other normal police functions. DPS personnel support BPD with investigative services, special programs, and community policing. The DPS divides the twenty-seven housing facilities in Boston into beats, tailoring its programs to crime in each. In addition, DPS runs several programs based on a community policing model: Senior Crime Watch, turkey dinner, holiday party, senior citizen activities, foot patrols of buildings and hallways, and community, resident, and manager meetings.


The Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) had a 270-member police force that patrolled its facilities, beginning in the 1970s. However, under the city’s 1999 Plan for Transformation, the force was disbanded, and its responsibilities were shifted to the Chicago Police Department. The crime response and control functions of the Chicago Police Department are supplemented by a number of CHA activities.

The CHA invests $2 million annually for tenant patrols in specific housing projects. A security guard service is funded at $5 million annually to provide a minimum of ten hours of coverage daily at each senior resident building. The CHA contracts with the Chicago Police Department to provide additional security at facilities including a $12 million annual contract for police and vertical patrol services at facilities including its senior locations, and a $3.5 million contract for additional police coverage at other facilities. Finally, CHA has spent more than $1 million to install security cameras at various developments.

Los Angeles

The Los Angeles Housing Authority had a small dedicated police force in the 1980s and 1990s, consisting of approximately fifty officers who were trained at the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Academy. This force never had responsibility for felony investigation, however, and was largely considered by the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) to be little more than a local security operation. In the mid-1990s the independent force was disbanded, and the housing authority entered into an in-teragency agreement with LAPD to address public safety and security, housing authority crime control policies, dispute/ conflict resolution, and other issues.

Currently, police officers hold intermittent role-playing exercises with public housing residents to give residents perspective on police investigations. In 2001, for instance, an exercise was staged in which residents played the role of officers and vice versa. One element of this was a simulated murder investigation.

Jersey City, New Jersey

Jersey City’s public housing authority and its police department cooperated to form the public housing problem-oriented policing project to investigate serious crime problems across six public housing sites. Each site used a team consisting of public housing representatives, police officers, resident representatives, and social service representatives. These teams focused on violence and drug offenses. Responses varied from site to site. An evaluation of the project determined that the site team responses, rather than physical structure differences or site demographics, were responsible for reductions in calls for service.

New York

The New York City Housing Authority hired security guards to patrols its developments at its creation in 1934. In 1952, the Housing Authority Police (HAP) department was officially created and HAP officers received special training. However, the HAP was merged with the New York Police Department (NYPD) in 1995 and is now a formal division within the NYPD designated the Housing Bureau. Bureau officers coordinate with tenant patrols, community groups, and development managers to serve the 420,000 residents of public housing in New York City. The bureau is staffed by NYPD officers on assignment to the Housing Bureau, much as other officers are assigned to narcotics, organized crime, patrol, and so forth.

Washington, DC

The District of Columbia Housing Authority (DCHA) established its Office of Public Safety in 1995. It is a fully operational police force with three types of employees: resident monitors who screen visitors at DCHA developments, civilian administrative support, and dedicated but sworn DCHA police officers who have arrest powers in DCHA facilities that match those of at-large Metropolitan Police Department officers. This force is supplemented as needed by sworn police officers from the Metropolitan Police Department, who have general jurisdiction in housing developments as they do in the city generally.

The city is divided into three regions of public housing and caters its law enforcement programs to crime problems within each. Tactics include uniformed foot patrols, bike patrols, decoy operations, physical and electronic stakeouts, and surveillance operations, in addition to a variety of special operations. The Office of Public Safety has a community policing component, with officers attending resident council meetings on a regular basis to implement resident watch, youth basketball, and other programs.


As the preceding examples show, public housing policing has taken several forms. Some of the cities that had the largest public housing police (and the largest public housing crime problems—for example, New York and Chicago) have moved away from the dedicated housing police model, adopting instead an approach that created formal relationships between the housing authority and metropolitan police departments. Others have retained a dedicated security force that has public safety responsibilities that are under the guidance or control of police departments. Commonly found elements include collaborations with city police and housing authorities, elements of community policing, and some degree of training or certification of housing authority public safety personnel. Others have no staff dedicated to public safety.

In general, most efforts to establish distinct and independent housing authority police departments have been abandoned in favor of a model that assigns full jurisdictional responsibilities to a city police department that works with local housing authorities and residents in varying degrees of cooperation. In fact, although there is no formal national documentation on this issue, it seems most likely that the vast majority of the several thousand housing authorities in the county have never had any dedicated police force at all, and have always been dependent on a local police department for public safety and the response to crime occurring in housing developments. There has been no national coordination, and little formal or informal coordination between cities. Each city, police department, or housing authority has therefore dealt with public safety in housing developments in unique ways, despite the fact that federal guidelines for this critical function have existed since the mid-1990s.

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