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Tuesday, Jan 22 2013 11:00 PM

Local litter: It shouldn't be beneath BPD

By The Bakersfield Californian

The Bakersfield Police Department has better things to do than chase around litterers. The same can surely be said with regard to clods who spit on sidewalks and use foul language within earshot of children. There's simply not enough hours in the day or officers on the street for local police to enforce respect for this city -- certainly not in the post-AB 109 world of newly released felons.

That doesn't mean the BPD can't or shouldn't look into ways it might contribute to the nationally recognized efforts of others to promote cleaner streets and municipal pride in Bakersfield. Plenty of ordinary citizens are outraged about people who apparently don't give a second thought about tossing their fast-food wrappers onto the asphalt

Steve Towle is one such outraged citizen. Towle, who lives in the city's La Cresta neighborhood, recently told The Californian he witnessed a man throwing fast-food trash onto the street from his car. Towle got the whole thing on high-definition video, including the car's license plate.

But the BPD wasn't interested in pursuing the matter -- department employees wouldn't take a report. Had Towle been so inclined, he could have filed a report himself on the BPD's do-it-yourself website -- right? Except the BPD's formatted link offers no place for such a report. Vandalism is as close as it gets.

We hear complaints from average folk often enough to know that littering of this type is all too common, and the physical evidence obviously backs that up. But police officers can't and won't cite offenders on the basis of someone else's eyewitness account. We get that.

However, the BPD's sorry-we're-helpless approach to litter doesn't cut it either. The institutional impotence behind that excuse represents a striking contrast to the strategies of William Bratton, a former top police official in Boston, New York and Los Angeles. Bratton, perhaps the most successful police chief in the country over the past three decades, laid out a zero-tolerance policy on graffiti, a generally nonviolent minor crime that was once regarded as simply the cost of doing business in an urban area. Bratton postulated that graffiti contributes to more serious crime by setting a negative tone for an area -- an adaptation of the much-debated "broken windows" theory.

Litter is not graffiti and Bakersfield is not New York City, but some of the same assumptions apply. Like graffiti, flagrant littering is the intentional infliction of visual clutter on a city that works hard and spends money to fight it.

It's ironic that so many people, local residents and visitors alike, comment on Bakersfield's trashy streets, given the fact that the national Keep America Beautiful organization recently awarded The Californian first place in the business/professional organization category for its participation in the "Litter: It's Beneath Us" campaign. (Many local volunteers not affiliated with the newspaper helped carry out the campaign. The award will be formally presented Jan. 29 in Washington, D.C.)

What can the BPD do about litter, short of pulling officers off more pressing beats? Provide a venue for residents to vent. Send letters to those who have been identified, by a license plate, for example, as having allegedly littered. And actually make an effort to turn the patrol car around and issue a citation on those occasions when nothing more urgent beckons.

The BPD needs to assure us that addressing litter is not beneath them, either.

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