Putting untapped resources to work for the community: Resident-driven community safety initiatives

by Ulises Silva, Detroit LISC Communications Program Officer

From the Detroit LISC Building Sustainable Communities Symposium held on September 8, 2011.

Community safety in Detroit is an ongoing challenge compounded, in part, by factors beyond residents’ control. Unemployment and the foreclosure crisis have contributed to a rise in property crime. The struggling economy is forcing the city to make difficult choices, including possible cuts to the police and fire departments.

It’s a stark reality, but one that presents an opportunity for residents willing to play a stronger role in helping their community, and willing to put untapped resources to work in a city that needs every resource it can find. Now more than ever, the city needs Detroiters to work with law enforcement agencies through resident-driven community safety initiatives to complement police efforts.

This was the subject of a panel discussion at the Building Sustainable Communities Symposium, hosted by Detroit Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC), on September 8, 2011. The panel, moderated by Detroit LISC Program Officer Brandon Ivory, was comprised of four community leaders from Chicago and the Metro Detroit region:

  • Jeff Bartow of Chicago’s Southwest Organizing Project
  • Bridget Vance of Focus: HOPE
  • James Albulov of the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office
  • Phyllis Judkins of the North End Neighborhood Watch

All four panelists discussed community policing alternatives that have thus far proven effective in complementing police efforts and easing the burden on the criminal court system.

Addressing crime at its core: Chicago’s Ceasefire Initiative

Crime doesn’t exist in a vacuum. In order to address it, one has to understand it, what its dynamics on the ground are, and who the key players and movers are.

This is what Jeff Bartow, the Executive Director and Lead Organizer of Southwest Organizing Project, discussed during his presentation of Chicago’s Ceasefire Initiative, which was launched in response to street violence in Chicago’s Marquette Park neighborhood. The initiative began as an experiment, using data and statistics to map where neighborhood shootings were taking place, and to understand the power dynamics on the ground.

“There’s a disease in our midst in terms of violence,” Mr. Bartow explained, “so we had to understand who’s moving the illness, just like an epidemic.”

Based on this approach, Ceasefire identified neighborhood men and women who came from a violent background but who were now serious about addressing violence. These individuals now work the streets between 2 and 3 p.m., engaging potential shooters and victims and understanding who was moving the action.

These efforts have yielded promising results. “Shootings dropped from 67 to the high 30s in the program’s first year,” Mr. Bartow explained. “The next year, it went down to 28. The next year, right around 22.” He attributed these reductions to the collaborative work being done by Ceasefire, the Chicago Police Department, and local institutions.

Ceasefire, however, isn’t just about addressing neighborhood violence head on and reducing the number of shooting victims: it’s about changing the way residents think about violence. It encourages immediate community responses to violent crimes to ensure that such incidents are never perceived as commonplace, accepted, or unavoidable.

“We’re working with organizations to move out of thinking that violence is inevitable,” Mr. Bartow explained. “Every time there was a shooting, we responded with vigils, BBQs, with families, to respond that violence should not be the norm.”

Mr. Bartow acknowledged that the challenges, especially keeping a community engaged, never go away, but that it’s important to keep trying to engage people and sitting across from them to hear their stories. He offered one important distinction: “People are less willing to come forward in a pure law enforcement context, but will do so more through community-led programs that offer jobs and drug treatment.”

Understanding crime, interacting directly with its main movers, and working with the community to respond to violent incidents, are some ways in which Ceasefire and its resident partners have helped improve safety in their community. Resident engagement is key to any such program, a fact emphasized by the next panelist.

Safety is everyone’s business: The importance of engaging the entire community

Detroit’s challenges were already well documented; the recent mayoral shifts only added to those challenges as newly elected officials presented different community safety initiatives—sometimes at the expense of previous initiatives just getting started. Despite the many changes, Detroit’s senior citizens remained at the forefront of safety-related work, identifying neighborhood problems such as prostitution and drug trafficking.

“We needed to find [senior citizens] help,” said Bridget Vance of Focus: HOPE, “because businesses were disconnected from residents. And we had to build partnerships with areas we normally didn’t have any with.”

Ms. Vance is the Safety Coordinator for the Central Woodward/North End Safety Initiative, and she was the panel’s next speaker. After discussing how senior citizens have been thus far involved in community safety, she said that their involvement wasn’t enough. “The first step in building the Central Woodward/North End Safety Initiative,” she said, “was to determine who would help it come together. The answer? Everyone! Safety is a community issue!”

But how can a safety initiative get everyone on board? In Central Woodward/North End, it began with identifying groups, especially faith-based groups, to determine where they were, what staying power they had, and what their safety wants were. Ms. Vance began building relationships and having conversations with each of them. In all, she assembled a group of diverse partners within a target area of six square miles.

It was just as important to engage local businesses, who have as much at stake in community safety as residents. Engaging local businesses, Ms. Vance explained, could be as simple as going in and talking with the owners, and asking them to volunteer their shops as stopping points for resident patrols. This not only gives patrols a chance to draw up more precise patrol routes and enjoy a brief rest: it gave both residents and business owners a chance to interact, get to know each other, and build the community spirit necessary for the success of any safety initiative.

Building a truly inclusive community safety initiative, however, meant engaging every member of the community—especially young people, a demographic that previous safety initiatives had not fully tapped into.

“Young people have lots of energy, and don’t come with our baggage,” she said.  “Present them an opportunity to engage that they can respond to, and they do.”

To begin this outreach, Ms. Vance partnered with Central Collegiate Academy to work with young people in and out of school. The goal was to create a program that would fully engage young people in safety-related work to help both their school and their community. Two tools that grew out of these efforts were the mobile and stationary safety stations.

The mobile safety station goes to a targeted hot spot (identified with crime data provided by Wayne State University), sets up a table at a local gathering spot (like a library or market), and offers tips, resources, and tools to residents on crime prevention.

The stationary safety station is located in Central Collegiate Academy, and lets students assume leadership roles by letting them talk about their work in the safety initiative. The in-school safety station also provides a safe space within the school (and away from peer pressure) where students can report crimes and safety issues.

Ms. Vance acknowledged the challenges of engaging young people in safety initiatives traditionally run by seniors, but emphasized the importance of eliminating the misunderstanding and distrust between the two demographics. She gave one vivid example of how the different languages they speak can contribute to this misunderstanding: “A youth bumped into a senior, and he said, ‘My bad.’ The senior didn’t understand that the youth was actually apologizing to him.”

Working to clarify misunderstandings like this is critical to incorporating residents both young and old in community safety initiatives.

“We need to increase the partnership between these,” Ms. Vance said. “Someone needs to watch vacant properties, mow lawns, and drive by properties. Young people can do this. We need to increase their levels of guardianship. And make sure to get parents on board too: they are the key.”

Young people are critical to the success of a community safety initiative. But to fully unlock their potential and help them become important contributors to their communities, we also need to address the challenges they face at school, and consider new ways of dealing with them.

A new way of looking at an old problem: Helping at-risk youth

Truancy, suspensions, and student misdemeanors are nothing new in Detroit or anywhere else. But are some of the ways schools deal with these challenges actually compounding them? Are there things schools can do to more effectively discipline students while encouraging them to continue their studies?

This was the topic discussed by the panel’s next speaker, James Albulov of the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office. He began his presentation by discussing some of the flaws inherent in the way schools and the court system deal with problem students.

Suspensions, for example, may be the traditional way of disciplining problem students, but they may also be one of the main problems contributing to property crime. “For some students,” he explained, “suspensions are like a vacation. And unfortunately, a lot of times, those are the students that become involved in property crime.”

Reaching out to these students before they involve themselves in crime is important, not just for the youth’s long-term prospects, but for the community’s. Mr. Albulov explained how the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office already had safe school initiatives in effect that departed from traditional measures.

In one initiative, a school informs the courts when a student is on suspension. Students would then know that they are, in essence, being watched, and that any wrongdoing while on suspension would have legal consequences.

Another initiative, the team court, is looking to take the courts out of the equation altogether. In this model, a first-time offending student can be judged by a group of peers, who listen to the case in a school court setting and issue a sentence of community service. If the offending student completes this sentence, the case is dropped, and the student never has to set foot inside a juvenile court. If the student doesn’t complete the sentence, then the matter gets sent back to the criminal system. The idea is to divert cases from the criminal court system, where the student may potentially face long-term consequences. To date, this program has proven effective in helping first-time offenders preserve a clean criminal record.

Yet another initiative that depends on youths helping other at-risk youths is the student truancy program. Here, students and parents seek out absent students in their hangout spots outside of school to engage them directly. By engaging peers and parents instead of traditional authoritarian figures, the program engages absent students in a casual, friendly manner, and lets them understand that their presence is valued in the classroom. Similarly, students seeking out their absent peers build valuable leadership skills while performing a service that the community as a whole can ultimately benefit from.

Like Ms. Vance, Mr. Albulov believes that engaging young people is critical in any program designed to encourage socially acceptable behavior and build leadership and civic responsibility. He also emphasized the need for schools, courts, and even parents to think differently about suspensions, and to think of ways of funneling suspended students into in-school educational components so that negative behaviors can be addressed directly.

A successful community safety initiative needs to engage young people, both in the community and in school. It also needs to engage residents of all ages to volunteer for neighborhood patrols. But what about people who are unable to leave their homes, or don’t have the necessary transportation to get to a patrol route? What can a person at home do to help their community? The next speaker offered a unique suggestion.

The North End Neighborhood Watch and the 10-minute people

Phyllis Judkins didn’t plan on becoming a community leader, much less the founder of a fast-growing community safety program. But while working for the U.S. Census earlier this year and walking door-to-door to get people’s names and addresses, she got to see her entire neighborhood—and the safety concerns it faced. What she saw inspired her to establish the North End Neighborhood Watch in March of 2011. As the panel’s final speaker, Ms. Judkins shared her story with the nearly 100 people in attendance.

The goal of the North End Neighborhood Watch was simple: to have neighborhood residents patrol the streets on bikes or in cars, and to document the happenings in their neighborhood. Volunteers would take notes about where people were dumping illegally, where drugs were being sold, and which abandoned houses were being scrapped. It’s a nuisance abatement program designed to help the community by helping the Detroit Police Department isolate the area’s trouble spots.

“We know what’s happening in the neighborhood,” Ms. Judkins explained. “Our residents know where the drug houses are, and who’s doing the bad stuff.”

When Ms. Judkins launched the program in March, 44 volunteers signed up soon afterwards. Together, they developed a patrol routine and schedule, and the volunteers would do their rounds by car or on bikes. But it soon became apparent that the program wasn’t engaging residents who lacked the mobility to volunteer for these patrols. It was important to engage as many people in the community, so Ms. Judkins hit upon the solution: the 10-minute person.

The role of the 10-minute person is simple: sit at their window, keep an eye on their immediate surroundings for 10 minutes, and take notes of any illegal activities taking place. In other words, it was about neighbors watching over neighbors for 10 minutes at a time. This new role allowed 17 more volunteers who were otherwise unable to join the program to now take an active role in watching over their community and neighbors. And together with the walking patrols, it’s a reason why the North End Neighborhood Watch is growing and now being looked at as a model to replicate in other Detroit neighborhoods.

“We should still be taking care of each other, no matter where we live, who we are, and how much money we make,” Ms. Judkins explained. “It’s about desiring something more for your fellow man.”

There is no shortage of the city’s greatest resource

Community safety is, indeed, about desiring something more not just for oneself, but for one’s neighbors and community. And though the city of Detroit still faces the challenges of a dwindling budget and a depleted police force, programs such as the ones discussed in this panel illustrate the importance of residents coming together to implement innovative resident-driven safety programs and complement the efforts of the Detroit Police Department. By working together, we can find effective, cost-effective ways of making our streets safe using Detroit’s greatest and most abundant resource—its people.


Posted on November 30, 2011, in Best Practices and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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