Fighting Crime Together
When it comes to fighting crime on the neighborhood level, Rambos need not apply.
Instead, community groups are developing innovative techniques to take back their streets. They're suing landlords, mounting volunteer patrols and cleanups, and organizing their blocks and apartment buildings. They've found strength in numbers, and they're facing down crime by using nonconfrontational tactics. They're cementing relationships with police and among themselves.
And they're winning.
There's a lot at stake. Some successful crime fighters are defending neighborhoods they have called home for years. Others are backing their commitment to - and investment in - urban living. Still more activists are refugees from high-crime areas who are determined to prevent a recurrence of the violence and decay they fled.
Here is a sampling of some of those crime-fighting efforts.
Landlord had the key to safe street
Ed Walsh's Long Beach neighborhood was being overrun by drug dealers, burglars and prostitutes. Walsh, who was born with cerebral palsy, was in no position to play Rambo.
But he and his neighbors began routing the criminal element by legally leaning on a landlord.
Their tool was "Safe Streets Now." The program, developed in Oakland, allows aggrieved neighbors to sue landlords in Small Claims Court on the ground that their properties are public nuisances.
Filing a Small Claims Court action costs only $15. The maximum award is $5,000 per claim, and lawsuits may be grouped. In Walsh's case, he and six of his neighbors were prepared to sue their local slumlord for $35,000.
Safe Streets Now was first tested in Long Beach in June 1992, when Betsy Bredau and three neighbors successfully sued a landlord. The decision resulted in an award of $1,000 per claimant, eviction of drug-dealing tenants and a code enforcement action against the property.
It was also an education for Bredau.
"We made some mistakes," she said. "We needed to be trained in the procedure and to find a way to protect the claimants from retaliation." Bredau, whose $5,000 claim was reduced because she could not document economic loss, was confronted by the drug dealers before her day in court. She also had a brick thrown through her window.
Mollie Wetzel, the Oakland activist who developed Safe Streets Now, was invited by the city last summer to hold a training course. Bredau graduated with honors. Now, the former aerospace accountant is working full time as an organizer and mediator for the Long Beach effort, called Project Open Eyes.
In recent months, she has met with neighborhood groups around the city and has trained them in such techniques as keeping logs of criminal activity. She has also compiled 36 pending small claims actions.
To date, the mere threat of a lawsuit has convinced most alleged slumlords to clean up their acts. "Once I send a landlord a demand letter, I get good response," said Bredau. "We haven't had to go to court yet this year."
Walsh and his neighbors saw a lessening of lawlessness once Bredau began mediating their case. Evictions of problem tenants have been promised and a building cleanup is under way.
"Before this, I had considered moving away," said Walsh, a psychiatric counselor. "But it's a Catch-22 - you can't sell if your neighborhood has gone bad."
"I'd like to see Project Open Eyes go citywide," added Walsh. "It would send a message to criminals and negligent landlords that people in Long Beach are not going to tolerate them any longer."
Residents and businesses unite
Born of a family's grief, Long Beach's grass-roots Citizens and Business Against Crime is working to make the city a safe place to live.
CABAC, which is seeking to unite the schools, businesses and neighborhoods in an all-out assault on crime, was founded in July by Tom and Sandi Shadden. On Memorial Day, the couple's son, William, was murdered in Belmont Shore during an attempted bicycle robbery.
Two juveniles have been arrested and are awaiting trial in the case.
Sandi Shadden, CABAC's president, summed up the group's goals at an Oct. 4 community meeting. "We can beat crime, but we all have to take responsibility, she said.
CABAC's proposed actions include establishing drug- and gun-free zones in and around the city's schools, using dogs to search for drugs and weapons on high school campuses, increased truancy enforcement, and citywide expansion of the Police Department's neighborhood and apartment watch programs.
Group seeks tips to catch crooks
"We need to support our police officers and give them help," said Candice Randle. That's precisely the goal of Signal Hill Crimestoppers Inc., a new group that is soliciting information on crime and offering rewards to tipsters.
Randle is president of the local chapter of Crimestoppers, an international effort to involve citizens in crime fighting while preserving their anonymnity. The Signal Hill Crimestoppers have already set up a hot line - (310) 989-SAFE - to take reports.
Making a clean sweep of gaps
There are a lot of programs out there, but some civic-minded Compton residents realized there were also a lot of gaps.
With that in mind, they formed 100 Strong Men and 100 Strong Women - essentially programs to keep all the good efforts from getting bogged down in the gaps between already established community and government groups.
An example of their mission was their first project - cleaning up the Compton Canal that runs diagonally through the city.
The group decided it was an eyesore that blemished their efforts to clean up graffiti and burned buildings. At their cleanup party Oct. 2, about 80 men and boys cleared out the canal east of Wilmington between El Segundo Boulevard and Rosecrans Avenue.
The men who are involved, such as Compton Mayor Omar Bradley and businessman Gorgonio Sanchez, said this is a group that gets things done.
"We're here to uplift the community," added Councilman Ron Green. "We hope to have young people help seniors trim their lawns and paint their houses."
The group, which hasn't quite reached its membership goal of 100, is also setting up mentoring programs to pair members with young men.
The group has already spawned another group, 100 Strong Women, which held its first meeting on the day of the canal cleanup. About 50 women signed up.
Group does GOOD as model
It began with failure, and four years later, Gangs Out of Downey (GOOD) is enjoying success.
And with that success has come a blueprint for communities looking for ways to fight crime.
The beginning was in 1989 when officials with the Downey Unified School District applied for an $80,000 state grant to develop anti-gang programs.
Because of Downey's low crime rate, the city was denied the grant. But when the word got out, businessman Phil Presicci decided to take on the job.
Presicci called community leaders, politicians and business people together and founded Gangs Out of Downey.
Today, GOOD runs several programs that have been credited with keeping gangs under wraps in the city. The group, seen as a role model, was recently featured in a Cable News Network broadcast about how various communities are fighting crime.
The group's programs include counseling sessions for youths and parenting skills classes in both English and Spanish.
GOOD also raised about $3,000 so the Downey Police Department could buy a special computer that keeps track of all known gang members. And last year, it co-sponsored a puppet show that warns preteens about the dangers of gangs and drugs.
"I don't think we've changed the world," Presicci said. But "I think we've impacted the commmunity."
The group has about 40 members and relies on donations and fund-raisers for its annual $30,000 to $35,000 budget.
Other communities have turned to GOOD for advice on fighting gangs. In Bellflower, volunteers have adopted many of GOOD's strategies for the Bellflower Against Gangs group. That volunteer effort was launched in early 1992 by members of the Bellflower Kiwanis Club.
Teaming up puts down bashings
Armed only with flashlights, bullhorns and determination, the Teams Project has put a serious dent in bashing and other crimes in Long Beach's gay community.
Founded following the July 1990 murder of a gay activist, the Teams Project now stages night foot patrols on weekends along Broadway between Alamitos and Kennebec avenues. The white-jacketed volunteers, who work in groups, are backed up by a mobile unit that is in constant contact with police.
Organizer Rick Rosen said that a word to the wise and the mere presence of people who care have helped to stem crime on Broadway.
Talk the talk, but walk the walk
Everyone talks about crime. But residents who are willing to back up their talk by walking are having a major impact on our streets.
Crime was out of control three years ago at Park Village, a low-income housing complex in Compton. Hired guards were having little impact, and police were reluctant to enter Park Village.
The solution came from residents, who volunteered to fence off and gate the complex and to go to work for their landlord as a security force. The guards, a group of Samoans, Latinos and African-Americans called "The Committee," have secured their homes and routed gangs from Park Village.
The same citizen patrol concept paid off for residents of North Long Beach on April 30, 1992. Members of the local Neighborhood Watch, called the Lucky Social Club, came to the defense of the area's Lucky supermarket as rioting flared following the Rodney King verdicts. They ringed the store and faced down looters.
They're also walking the walk at the Sherwood Apartments, a large complex in Bellflower. The residents, many of whom moved to Bellflower to escape crime in other areas, stage nightly walking patrols of the grounds. Their group, called the Eyes of Sherwood, has already made several citizen's arrests.
Pride of place makes difference
Low-income housing is often equated with high crime rates. But one complex has moved to combat that image by instilling pride of ownership.
Residents of Springdale West in West Long Beach recently formed a residents' association. The group has improved security and added amenities for youth, including a satellite of the Boys and Girls Club of Long Beach.
Thanks to a grant from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, residents are now working with Springdale's owners on a plan to purchase their apartments.
Blockbusters spread scriptures
A group of ministers known as the Blockbusters regularly drive and walk through some of Long Beach's toughest neighborhoods to confront gang members and offer hope by sharing the Holy Scriptures.
"So many of these gang members have been deprived of love in the home," said the Rev. Granderson Wright.
Each week, members of the North Long Beach-based group, which is also known as Youth Action for Christ, drive into a neighborhood at night in a motorcade, broadcasting the gospel over loudspeakers on top of their blue and white vans.
Once the Blockbusters make their presence known, they take to the streets to talk to people and hand out leaflets in English and Spanish.
Sometimes the gang members try to intimidate the Blockbusters into leaving their neighborhoods, Wright said.
"Any time we get a gang sign or a gesture, we stop and challenge them," Wright said.
The ministers know their work is dangerous, but they said they feel protected as they go into the streets armed only with their Bibles.
"We're not afraid to come out here," Wright said. "We love these people - love dominates fear."
Neighborhood pride improves
For a textbook example of community organizing against crime, check out the saga of Long Beach's Neighbors Organized for a Safer Environment (NOSE). Launched as a Neighborhood Watch in 1990, the group has since mushroomed into a mega-watch.
Jose Ulloa and his neighbors, who prized their new neighborhood for its classic Craftsman bungalow homes, came up with a number of early innovations, including "Project Porchlight," a program that fitted every home with motion-sensitive lighting.
Ulloa recognized that crime-fighting alone could get tedious, so NOSE also concentrated on building neighborhood pride. Residents joined in Wrigley's Christmas Tree Lane Parade, helped to get a Boys and Girls Club established at Franklin Middle School and had their area designated by the city as a historic district.
A pocket of a park is reborn
Linda and Leroy Ivory found some unlikely allies when they sought to restore a kiddie park near their Wilmington home.
Thanks to the couple's persistence - and the cooperation of older street gang members - East Wilmington Vest Pocket Park once again resounds with the laughter of children.
In 1992, Linda Ivory worked with older gang members to negotiate a truce at the site, which had become a drug market and a magnet for drive-by shooters. They also convinced Los Angeles officials to install equipment and landscaping.
Today, the Ivorys and their allies are still working togeother to keep East Wilmington Vest Pocket Park drug- and violence-free.
Another ex-gang member was the catalyst in a recent success story in Long Beach's Washington Middle School neighborhood. Raul Jimenez, a former member of the East Side Longos, organized a baseball program for local teens.
Jimenez has since moved on, but his baseball program is doing well under the leadership of Alvin Bernstein, a county probation officer; and Officer Robert Mahakian, a member of the neighborhood's community policing team.
Blotting out blight works
Norwalk mail carrier Art Parra was tired of the graffiti in his neighborhood. It seemed to be everywhere, and although city workers came out occasionally to paint it over, it just wasn't enough.
"Graffiti is a symbol of crime," he said. "When we take it away, it sends a message that we don't want it in our area."
Parra got together with a few of his neighbors and decided to do something about it. They came up with a group called Graffiti Busters, later changed to Norwalk Against Graffiti.
On weekends, they go out with paint, brushes and rollers to attack the vandalism.
They've expanded beyond the western part of Norwalk where Parra lives into neighborhoods where gangs are a way of life.
Parra, a father of two, said he's not afraid of painting over graffiti, because he doesn't feel he has an alternative.
"What if I don't do anything?" he asked. "What's going to happen to my kids' future?"