Addressing High-Crime Motels

By Willis, Dan | The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, March 2007 | Go to article overview

Addressing High-Crime Motels

Willis, Dan, The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin

In yet another eventful day at a local motel, officers responded to an emergency call regarding a methamphetamine lab that a tenant had set up in one of the rooms. The inherent danger of this makeshift drug operation placed the lives and safety of everyone at the facility in danger, and police rushed to resolve the situation. They had become quite accustomed to repeatedly responding to calls for service here because they did so about five times more frequently than at any of the other lodging facilities in the city. Just in the past year, officers had addressed incidents involving crimes, such as prostitution, drug trafficking, gang activity, and murder, at this location. The motel proved to be an ongoing drain on police resources and a source of problems for the vicinity.


Reducing illegal conduct at high-crime motels presents a challenge for law enforcement. (1) Poorly managed properties can attract criminal elements that create a substantial risk for victimization, result in an excessive number of police calls for service, and decrease the quality of life in the neighborhood. They produce an environment in which crime-related disturbances become prevalent. And, if officers become ineffective at preventing disorder at such motels, illicit activity can spread to surrounding areas.



The La Mesa, California, Police Department developed a way to reduce arrests and calls for service at crime-prone motels in its jurisdiction. The Motel Crime Prevention Measures Program, a collaborative effort with the city attorney's office, is designed to gain the willing compliance of the property owner and management in effectuating specific crime prevention measures. This endeavor provides a way for authorities to avoid--and use only as a last resort--civil abatement procedures, which result in substantial costs to both the motel owner and the government. (2) Fortunately, in many instances, warning of this possible action and notification of the intent of authorities to institute significant changes to the property motivate motel owners to willingly comply with officials' requests.


Several components comprise the program. These include an analysis of the motel and its problems, an examination of the property, a meeting between police department and city attorney's office representatives and the motel owner and managers, an appointment of officers to conduct high-visibility enforcement at the property, and an assessment of the program's effectiveness.

Analysis of the Motel

First, officers analyze the lodging facility and the issues pertaining to it. A department's crime analysis unit can provide statistics covering a certain period of time to reveal patterns of criminality at the motel. Investigators should consider the number and nature of all arrests and calls for service. To clearly demonstrate that a particular property serves as a significant crime location, officers should gather and compare information for all similar motels in the surrounding area. Agencies can use an effective tool, the calls-for-service-per-room (CFS/room) ratio, to determine a property's rate of crime; in making this calculation, officers add the number of calls for service and self-initiated arrests for a 1-year period and divide the total by the number of rooms at the motel. (3)

Examination of the Property

Next, investigators conduct a thorough examination of the motel property. Specifically, they should note the security and crime prevention measures, or lack thereof, such as lighting, overall appearance, parking facilities, motel policies, landscaping, and fencing. Then, officers outline a specific plan for the motel owner and managers to use in improving the condition and operations of the facility, thereby making it less attractive to those involved in criminal activity. Many proven crime prevention measures exist that officers can present, including--

* posting signs at the entrance to the property and the lobby stating that the motel participates in an ongoing partnership with the police to address all suspected criminal activity;

* instituting a policy that visitors and guests must display a current, dated parking permit obtained from the lobby for their vehicles and produce photo identification (staff will have the records available for police inspection at any time);

* employing a night watchman;

* issuing a written agreement with management that the motel will institute a zero-tolerance policy regarding drugs, prostitution, trespassing, underage drinking, gangs, and violence and will notify the police immediately upon evidence of any such activity;

* encircling the property with a secure fence so vehicles and pedestrians can enter and exit only at designated areas;

* installing high-intensity lighting and closed-circuit surveillance cameras in all hallways, the interior and exterior of buildings, and throughout the parking lots;

* allowing law enforcement experts to train motel staff to recognize and properly report suspected criminal activity;

* forbidding the renting of rooms for less than a 24-hour period;

* reducing or removing obstructing landscaping to ensure adequate viewing of the property from the surrounding areas; and

* completing necessary painting and other maintenance of the motel. …

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