#092 Mar/Apr 1997

Remembering Rights

Without safe streets, decent housing is nothing more than a comfortable prison. In many low-income neighborhoods, community organizations have tackled the problems that crime and open air drug markets bring. […]

Without safe streets, decent housing is nothing more than a comfortable prison. In many low-income neighborhoods, community organizations have tackled the problems that crime and open air drug markets bring. Some work independently, some work with other organizations and police, and some work at odds with the police – the very organizations whose mission is to protect and serve. In this issue, we present a range of strategies that individuals and groups should consider as they attempt to make their neighborhoods better places to live. In organizing against crime, however, neighborhood groups should always proceed with caution.

In his article on the St. Paul, Minnesota, Police FORCE program, Ed Goetz questions the use of the term “community based” to describe crime prevention projects initiated by the police. St. Paul tenant advocates criticized the FORCE unit’s extreme tactics and targeting of African-American neighborhoods. In such situations, Goetz points out, the term “community-based” can serve as camouflage, deflecting criticism of potential law enforcement excesses by suggesting residents’ stamp of approval.

Even when anti-crime initiatives do have resident approval – which many do – this does not necessarily preclude unfair treatment of suspected criminals, or disregard for the rights of an entire group of people. Drastic measures such as Chicago’s notorious public housing sweeps have been said to have resident support. But too many residents of poor and disenfranchised communities have been forced to choose between harsh and constitutionally questionable tactics or no action. Is it any wonder that residents of crime-ridden neighborhoods often go along with such measures?

Even some former civil libertarians have signed onto the bill of goods that says its time to take extreme measures to take back communities – even if those measures run a greater risk of trampling on the rights of the innocent. Yet offering mass, warrantless police raids as the necessary deterrent to crime and violence is like telling someone you have to cut off their foot to save their leg, when a more complicated surgery could save both. As Harvey Grossman, ACLU legal director argued in response to an article that defended the sweeps in the Summer 1994 issue of the communitarian publication The Responsive Community:

    “All communities should receive adequate and equal law enforcement services before residents are asked to give up their dignity and privacy. Instead of pretending that public housing residents are making voluntary and informed choices about waiving these rights in the name of security, communitarians should focus on ensuring that public housing communities are given adequate security in the first place. Then there will be no cause to discuss whether core constitutional guarantees should be abridged.”

Resident-initiated crime prevention groups also should be mindful of the rights of their neighbors. Residents should act to improve their communities, but they should temper their actions with respect for constitutional safeguards. Neighborhood watch groups can congregate and hold events to dissuade drug traffic and loitering, and to improve the physical appearance of their communities, without getting into the murky business of targeting individuals. When a citizen or group has adequate evidence a crime has been committed, that evidence can be reported to police. But actions such as mailing postcards to the homes of people seen in areas known for drug dealing transforms crime prevention groups into  judge and jury, accountable to no one.

A Broad-Based Effort

Despite the gulf that sometimes exists between police and low-income minority communities, residents and cops need to work together in the broad-based effort to deter crime and improve neighborhoods. Community policing, at least in theory, aims to move the police back into the circle of the community. Where departments are honestly attempting to work in partnership with residents, and backing it up with the necessary training for officers, local organizations and residents should support these efforts.

Support, however, should not mean blind acceptance. Police departments that respond to criticism by automatically circling the wagons, or use the community policing label solely for public relations purposes, only prolong the polarization. In an excerpt from Nolo Press’s Safe Homes Safe Neighborhoods, author Stephanie Mann’s discussion of how resident groups can work with police includes a description of the role citizens’ review boards can play in ensuring fair investigation into charges of police misconduct. Police need to be open to such measures and willing to examine common criticisms if they are to win widespread trust and support from their communities and truly be considered community-based.

Defining Community

In discussing neighborhood safety, and in general, community development professionals should also consider defining terms like “community based,” “healthy communities,” and “resident empowerment” that are part of the popular lexicon of the field.

The term “community based” implies resident participation. But as Sarah Hovde and John Krinsky show in their article on community land trusts and mutual housing associations, even these groups for which resident participation is an intrinsic goal struggle with the extent and form of this participation. Yet despite the difficulty of wrangling with these issues in real-life situations, community development professionals frequently use blanket terms to describe their work. These terms build an idea of significant resident involvement that is sometimes more myth than reality.

Is it possible to arrive at a common definition of community, or a healthy community, or what constitutes sufficient resident participation? Perhaps not entirely, but those of us working to build communities can start by describing this work with greater clarity and detail. In doing so, we enlighten and strengthen our own efforts.



  • Watchful Stewards: Mutual Housing Associations and Community Land Trusts

    March 1, 1997

    The large, foreclosed HUD-subsidized building on Stamford’s West Side had once housed over 60 families, but in 1993 stood vacant, a hulking eyesore with nesting pigeons as its only occupants. […]

  • Restoring Order

    March 1, 1997

    Community Residents Lead the Way to Safer Neighborhoods In towns and cities across America, community residents fed up with escalating crime have banded together to take back their neighborhoods. Residents […]

  • Partners in Policing

    March 1, 1997

    When Nutley, New Jersey, Police Chief Robert DeLitta and Sgt. Steve Rogers saw a letter in the local newspaper from an African-American woman who was having trouble renting an apartment […]