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 have organized rallies, vigils, patrols, and coalitions, targeting problems from drug dealing to prostitution to school safety. Realizing that they must be the driving force for change, residents have developed strategies, identified external resources, and mobilized to address seemingly entrenched local crime problems.
The results have been dramatic. In neighborhood after neighborhood, resident organizing has helped close crack houses, board up or demolish abandoned buildings, curtail prostitution, and make schools safer. Residents have created new partnerships with law enforcement, elected officials and government agencies, foundations, religious institutions, and other community organizations. These partnerships have provided physical and financial resources to eradicate specific crime conditions while helping to build a stronger sense of community.
An Unusual Partnership
Six years ago, homeowners in a middle-class Jewish community in an ethnically and racially diverse section of Brooklyn, New York, formed the Midwood Shomrim patrol to fight an increase in burglaries, robberies, car thefts, and quality of life nuisance crimes. The patrol began when Chaim Deutsch, 23 years old and a new father, was inspired by other volunteer patrols in adjacent neighborhoods and rallied 200 of his neighbors to organize a car patrol. The Midwood Shomrim patrol then affiliated with other Shomrim patrols operated by orthodox Jewish volunteers in several neighborhoods in Brooklyn.
Following the first year of the patrol’s operation, Chaim Deutsch also formed a partnership with the Umma Group, a volunteer organization started in 1976 by five Muslim families. The Umma Group was highly regarded for its foot patrol, which had, over a few years, successfully stabilized Umma’s violent and drug infested neighborhood. Since its inception, the Umma Group has grown into a multi-ethnic coalition of residents working together to improve the quality of life in their neighborhood.
Over the years, the relationship between Midwood Shomrim and the Umma Group has evolved from sharing strategies for working effectively with police to taking a proactive approach to crime. While the two organizations patrol their own neighborhoods, Umma’s executive director, Ed Powell, said they share the same radio frequency and sometimes, when responding to a particularly difficult crime condition, go on joint patrols or supplement each other’s patrols. In addition, through the Umma Group’s efforts, Midwood Shomrim learned how to identify potential criminal activity without assuming that criminals were more likely to be minorities.
“Umma and Shomrim work well together,” commented Deputy Inspector Jeremiah Quinlan, commanding officer of the 70th precinct. “They have been the eyes and ears of the police department and have had a positive impact on the community.”
The Midwood Shomrim patrol covers 40 blocks divided into four sectors. The patrol carefully screens volunteers by checking references and interviewing members of the tight-knit community who are likely to have information on the candidate. All volunteers must commit to patrol once a week and to be on radio call at all times except during the Sabbath and on Jewish holidays.
The patrol also operates a 24-hour hotline for residents to report crime information. Patrol leaders analyze this information to establish patterns and target their efforts accordingly. They also share the information with Umma and other neighboring patrols.
In addition, Midwood Shomrim works closely with four police precincts in the area. Police respond rapidly when the base station radios 911 to report a crime in progress. Midwood Shomrim also acts as a liaison between the police and the community and supports the police department’s work by testifying as witnesses or helping complainants get to court.
Patrol members monitor the courts as well. They are especially vigilant in following serious felony cases through the system. In addition, Shomrim leaders ask elected officials to pressure judges to impose maximum sentences for repeat offenders.
Police have credited Midwood Shomrim and civilian patrols in adjacent neighborhoods with playing a key role in reducing crime. And Chaim Deutsch said community residents report feeling safer walking the streets in the evening and parking their cars without worrying about the break-ins that had plagued their community just a few years ago.
Safe Streets Campaign
The Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition (NWBCC), an alliance of 10 ethnically diverse neighborhood associations in the Bronx, New York, has been a powerful force for change. In 1985, when crack cocaine was tearing at the fabric of communities across New York City, NWBCC formed a Safe Streets Committee to focus the attention of law enforcement on their concerns about escalating crime.
During the Safe Streets Committee’s first three years, its members established several initiatives, including the Bronx Anti-Narcotic Drive, a police precinct-based program targeting street drug locations; “drug hot sheets” that residents use to report information to the police; and an agreement with the District Attorney’s Office to keep the Safe Streets Committee updated on the status of arrests, convictions, and evictions.
By 1989, NWBCC’s work had led to a multi-government initiative dubbed Operation Lock-Out, which aimed to close storefront drug sales locations. Under the initiative, community residents provided information on drug locations to the police, regulatory agencies (ie., lead licensing agencies) targeted these locations for violations, and the police conducted buy and bust operations. The success of Operation Lock-Out led to a pilot project, the Civil Enforcement Initiative, in one of the police precincts in the coalition’s area.
The Civil Enforcement Initiative began in 1991 and soon became a citywide program. Under the initiative, the police department’s Legal Bureau assigns lawyers to work with precinct commanding officers to identify appropriate civil remedies for crime conditions, including narcotics sales, prostitution, gambling, auto theft and vandalism, illegal sale of weapons, sale of alcohol to minors, and unlawfully loud music. This initiative has won an Innovations in American Government Award from the Ford Foundation and has a track record of success in neighborhoods across New York City, including NWBCC’s own backyard.
As a direct result of pressure by NWBCC and two of its affiliates, the Civil Enforcement Unit launched an 11-month investigation into the infamous Jerome Motel in the Bronx. This 37-room hotel was used exclusively for prostitution from the day it opened in 1990. Rooms were available for three-hour periods for $35. Motel management used a bull horn to rouse johns overstaying their allotted time. Prostitutes blatantly solicited passing motorists. Parents stopped bringing their children to a playground across the street.
NWBCC relentlessly fought the motel’s establishment. The coalition held rallies and pressured the police to make arrests. In 1994 and 1995, police made more than 300 arrests in and immediately adjacent to the hotel for patronizing prostitutes and for solicitation. But it wasn’t until the coalition arranged for then-Police Commissioner William Bratton to tour the area that the Civil Enforcement Unit began its investigation. In September 1995, the police department padlocked the motel under New York City’s Nuisance Abatement Law.
Hilda Chavis, vice president of NWBCC, said the neighborhood is now “a far cry from what it was prior to the closing of the Jerome Motel.”
But NWBCC did not stop there. Coalition member and dozens of volunteers packed a court hearing on the matter and continued to monitor the case. The coalition also began working with Larry Schneider, managing attorney of the Bronx Civil Enforcement Unit, to identify and screen potential renters of the property. In most such cases, the police department works with the property owner to screen commercial tenants, while the establishment remains closed. Only in high-profile cases does the community get involved in selecting the renter. In this case, the pressure was so great on the owner that he agreed to sell the property to a nonprofit organization, Project Return, to convert the motel into AIDS transitional housing with on-site social services and a community space.
The battle to close the Jerome Motel is just one example of NWBCC’s noticeable progress against blatant crime in their communities. The residents who make up the coalition’s Safe Streets Committee plans to continue their work – location by location, issue by issue.
Organizing for Safe Schools
In Cleveland, Ohio, an alliance of parents, teachers, and principals from 26 public and private schools have been working together since 1993 to improve safety in and around their schools. Parents in the community realized they had no mechanism or forum to address their serious concerns about school safety issues, such as truancy and problems arising from some vacant, poorly secured buildings near two schools. Residents of two ethnically and economically diverse neighborhoods formed the Education/Safety Organizing Project (ESOP) to address these issues.
Word quickly spread throughout neighborhoods in the east and west sides of Cleveland about the parents’ work, according to Sharon McGraw, ESOP’s executive director. Additional schools joined the mobilization, which aimed to increase police services and target specific problem areas. Each month, more than 200 parents meet to address citywide school safety issues and another 300 meet to target problems at individual schools.
ESOP also established a working partnership with the police department. The increase of police resources and the parents’ work have produced a host of improvements, including a new police department school patrol unit. Every police district now assigns officers to patrol the schools, particularly during arrival and dismissal times. ESOP’s work with police has also helped close 24 inside drug locations.
In targeting problems specific to individual schools, parents in the coalition have worked with the police and other city agencies to close the Crosstown Motel, a haven for drug dealing and prostitution 500 feet from the George Washington Carver Elementary School. Parents have also pushed the local liquor authority to revoke liquor licenses for two food marts selling alcohol to minors less than 150 feet from two elementary schools; pressured one of the food mart owners to stop selling cigarettes to those underage; and helped reduce the truancy rate at a middle school by half. The parent coalition has also been fighting since 1994 to get the city government to return a percentage of asset forfeiture money to resident-based groups [See sidebar]. However, Sharon McGraw, ESOP’s executive director, is heartened that the city has decided to use some asset forfeiture money to set up neighborhood mediation centers across Cleveland.
Parents of children who attend Cleveland Public Schools continue to cite their children’s safety as their primary concern, according to a survey of 6,000 parents by ESOP. But McGraw said ESOP’s efforts are chipping away at many of these problems. The group’s unified approach has affected both school safety and how the police department approaches the problem.
An Arsenal of Strategies
The Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement (CCI) consider themselves activists whose role in the community is to teach people how to take care of problems themselves. The organization was founded in 1976 by eight churches in Waterloo, a community of about 66,000 with a 13 percent minority population of mostly African-Americans. Since it began, CCI has expanded into a statewide citizen’s grassroots organization with individual chapters. Residents who become members determine the organization’s priorities and must be actively involved in projects.
Starting in 1989, members of CCI’s Waterloo chapter began focusing on the problems of crime and drugs – two issues that rudely erupted into the community with the arrival of crack cocaine. Resident initially reacted to these problems with fear, but that fear soon turned to anger. CCI-Waterloo helped residents develop ways to fight back.
One of their earliest strategies was the neighborhood “walk.” A large group of residents would target a particular drug sales location first by walking through the immediate area. The walk would end across the street from the location, where residents would stay for hours monitoring activity and noting license plate numbers. They refrained from speaking with dealers or buyers. Instead, they sent letters to drivers spotted in the area warning them that if they returned, the information would be passed on to the police. At one particular location, between 25 and 50 residents stood from 7 p.m. to 2 a.m. for 50 nights in a row. The target was a homeowner who residents believed was involved in drug dealing. Their efforts succeeded, and the activity ceased.
Initially the police department was uncomfortable with the group’s approach because of the risk to protesters. But, CCI director Donna Jones reports, as their efforts continued and their cautious and non-confrontational approach became clear, the police began supporting their efforts and quickly responded when needed. The residents further strengthened this relationship by funneling anonymous cards to the police reporting crime “hot spots.”
CCI-Waterloo also enlisted another partner – Midwest Power, the local utility company. In the neighborhoods CCI targets, the company replaces street lights within 24 hours and installs powerful floodlights on utility poles directed at locations known for drug dealing or other criminal activity.
Iowa CCI has also pressed for new legislation or changes to current laws. The group’s focus on legislative change grew out of its frustration with the powerful landlord organization in Waterloo. CCI mobilized resident in 10 neighborhoods to counter their influence. The CCI Neighborhood Coalition has led to a new local law, the Specified Crime Property Ordinance, that allows the police department to fine property owners who fail to address illegal activity on their premises. CCI also pushed to modify a state law to allow eviction of tenants shown to be a clear and present danger, not just to residents of their premises but also to those living within 1,000 feet of the property.
As a result of a two-year campaign, CCI was also the catalyst for a statutory change regarding residents of federally financed housing, according to the Des Moines Register. Residents involved with CCI objected to the law allowing Section 8 tenants to continue receiving rent subsidies after they had allegedly engaged in criminal activity or, in some cases, had been evicted from one apartment and began renting another. The new law allows the government to deny federally financed housing to individuals found to be using, or to have a history of using, illegal substances, if such behavior “may interfere with the health, safety, or right to peaceful enjoyment of the premises by other residents.”
CCI also lobbied the Waterloo Housing Authority to allow the Neighborhood Coalition to participate in work sessions to develop guidelines for implementing the new law. The Waterloo City Council approved all but one of CCI’s recommendations.
Learning From Success
The national drop in crime over the last four years can be attributed to many factors. But the work of hundreds of thousands of community residents – like those in Midwood, the Northwest Bronx, Cleveland, and Waterloo – has undoubtedly contributed to making their neighborhoods safer. While crime has declined, however, there will always be work to be done. In cities large and small, residents realize the battle to keep their streets safe is ongoing.
Organize to Fight Crime
When organizing to fight crime or any other issue, community leaders should pay attention to several important lessons:
- Don’t be disheartened by the slow pace. Getting projects off the ground takes time. Often, crime problems have persisted for years before a community organizes to put up a fight. If the problem doesn’t develop overnight, neither will the solution.
- Always follow-up and hold all parties to their commitments. Law enforcement agencies and elected officials respond to many different constituencies. The “squeaky wheel” theory holds true: constantly follow up with government agencies.
- Don’t lose sight of the original goal, but be flexible in adjusting the project to make it more workable for everyone involved. “Keep your eyes on the prize,” but stay smart about keeping your coalition together and learning from experience.
- Do be inclusive by reaching out to many segments of the community and to outside resources for guidance and participation. It’s impossible for crime conditions to disappear without resident support and involvement. But it’s hard for one community to do it alone.
A recent campaign of the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition (NWBCC) has been the fight to gain access to federal asset forfeiture money for community-based crime prevention efforts. After National People’s Action, with which NWBCC is affiliated, lobbied the U.S. Justice Department for a change in federal law in 1994 to allow, but not require, community groups to receive up to 15 percent of asset forfeiture money, NWBCC focused its energy on the city.
NWBCC members began a series of meetings with city and New York Police Department (NYPD) officials to propose that a portion of asset forfeiture money be available to community-based organizations for youth programs and prevention, education, and job training. According to NWBCC member Joan Arnold, then police commissioner William Bratton said he was unaware of the federal regulation but accepted the group’s proposal. That summer, however, Bratton told coalition members the city’s money had already been spent. After several letters from and to Mayor Giuliani’s office and a canceled appearance at the group’s annual meeting by deputy mayor Peter Powers, the coalition in November 1995 brought five busloads of people and a delivery of turkeys and pies downtown to city hall. Mayor Giuliani then cut off communication with the group, according to Arnold.
Last July, NWBCC members learned that the city had received tens of millions of dollars in asset forfeiture money. After the local NBC affiliate aired a story on the asset forfeiture fight in August, NYPD’s new Commissioner Howard Safir said he wanted to return a portion of the money to the community. Finally last December, after NWBCC held many more meetings with Justice Department officials, city council members, and other authorities, Commissioner Safir announced that the NYPD would return a portion of the money to community groups, but he was unspecific on the process or amount. This March, according to Arnold, Safir finally said NYPD would return $100,000 – a small percentage of the city’s federal asset forfeiture money. Unsurprisingly, NWBCC is not happy with the decision. “After all this year of doing this campaign, I think this is a slap in the face to the community,” Arnold said.
“Return of asset forfeiture” campaigns in other cities are meeting with similar resistance from police departments.