Police Best Practices for Addressing High-Crime Motels

In yet another eventful day at a local motel, officers responded to an emergency call regarding a methamphetamine lab that a tenant hadset 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 herebecause 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 ofproblems for the vicinity.

Reducing illegal conduct at high-crime motels presents a challengefor law enforcement. (1) Poorly managed properties can attract criminal elements that create a substantial risk for victimization, resultin an excessive number of police calls for service, and decrease thequality 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 thispossible 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 analysisof 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 statisticscovering 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, therebymaking 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 vehiclesand 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.

Meeting with the Motel Owner and Managers

Representatives from the police department and the city attorney'soffice then meet with the motel owner and management to discuss the ongoing problems and the measures that authorities expect to be taken. Ideally, motel representatives will comply willingly with all crimeprevention measures, and no abatement action will be necessary. Uponagreement in writing, periodic meetings will help ensure compliance with all agreed terms, and progress can be documented.

Patrol Efforts

Next, the department designates officers to conduct self-initiated, high-visibility enforcement for at least a 6-month period. Coupled with the crime prevention measures put into place by the motel, thorough police enforcement should have a lasting and significant impact on criminal activity at the property.

Assessment of Results

Finally, law enforcement officers assess the overall effectivenessof the program by comparing the current CFS/room ratio with the figure pertaining to the same period for the preceding year. Initially, the number of calls for service and self-initiated arrests likely willrise during the first phase of the program, but these occurrences should decrease significantly over time.


The La Mesa Police Department found the Motel Crime Prevention Measures Program successful. For several years, one lodging facility in its jurisdiction had a higher number of calls for service, arrests, and incidents of criminal activity (including two murders and one attempted murder) than any other motel in the city. Before implementationof the program, its CFS/room ratio was 2.42, compared with an average of .8 for the other area motels.

Several meetings with the owner and managers resulted in an agreement that the motel would institute nearly all of the crime preventionmeasures mentioned earlier. After 1 year, the ratio for this facility dropped to 1.46. And, the number of calls for service and arrests continues to decline.


Many jurisdictions can relate to the problem faced by the La Mesa Police Department at this particular lodging facility. The Motel Crime Prevention Measures Program can have a lasting impact not only on aproblem motel but the entire neighboring community. It can offer a way for officers to reduce the number of crime incidents and calls forservice and to improve quality of life in the surrounding vicinity.


(1) This article mainly addresses motels because of their tendencyto have lower lodging fees, thereby offering an incentive to individuals involved in crime. Many of the strategies presented also could apply to other types of facilities (e.g., hotels and apartment buildings).

(2) In most states, civil and criminal laws establish procedures that allow for city or county governments to either temporarily or permanently abate a motel if the property is declared a public nuisance through a court-ordered injunction. In such a case, the motel owner must cease conducting business, pay substantial fines and restitution,or take steps to deter crime and improve the property.

(3) Karin Schmerler, "Disorder at Budget Motels"; retrieved from %2Oin%20budget%20motels%20karin%20schmerler%22.

Lieutenant Willis serves with the La Mesa, California, Police Department.

RELATED ARTICLE: Formula for Determining the Ratio of Calls for Service Per Room

[Calls for service (50) + Self-initiated arrests (50)]/Number of rooms (100) = Ratio (1.0)

The calls-for-service-per-room ratio offers an effective way to gauge the level of criminal activity at a motel and to compare facilities within a jurisdiction. Ideally, a property will have a ratio of between .5 and 1.0, although this can vary, in part, according to the area. Problem motels will have a significantly higher ratio than others in the vicinity. The La Mesa Police Department strives to keep the ratio of all facilities in its jurisdiction at 1.0 or lower.