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In Houston, neighbors, cops put heads together

The faded red, windowless Link Food Store in Houston’s Independence Heights neighborhood was rarely opened for official business, but that didn’t stop a steady, round-the-clock stream of cars in and out of its parking lot at the corner of 40 ½ Street and North Main.  Neighbors suspected the owner was selling something other than groceries.

The cops got curious, too, and in the summer of 2009 attached a surveillance camera to a telephone pole on the store's east side. It was promptly stolen.

Teamwork is a key ingredient in fighting crime in Independence Heights. John Branch (from left), Mardie Paige, Captain Green, Spencer Davis, Maria Pina and Larry Johnson participated in the initial Crime Prevention through Environmental Design workshop, which trained residents and police to identify features that contribute to crime.

“So that’s when you take different tactics,” said Mardie Paige, then safety and disaster coordinator for the Independence Heights Redevelopment Council. Within weeks, Paige organized her own surveillance team, which used binoculars, paper and pencils, cameras and camcorders to chronicle the comings and goings of the erstwhile “shoppers.” That evidence, turned over to police, eventually led to tighter enforcement and arrests, although some illegal activity continues.

Paige and her team prompted police to take a more proactive approach to reducing crime, said city council member Ed Gonzalez, who credits the group with helping reduce drug trafficking and prostitution in the area over the past three years.

“Officers are literally running call to call, working reactively,” said Gonzalez, a former police officer. But the detailed information from residents helped them focus on the most problematic areas. “It’s getting rid of the nest,” he said.

The Link store was one of five crime hotspots the group identified during safety training offered through National LISC in July and August of 2009. The Crime Prevention through Environmental Design (CPTED) workshop trained groups of 10 residents and police officers to identify features in the landscape – such as poor lighting or vacant buildings – that contribute to crime, and to focus on properties that attract criminal activity.

Since then, four members of the original team, all in their 50s and 60s, have continued the surveillance. They include the energetic Paige, now in school to become a paramedic; her husband Henry Paige, a retired custodial supervisor at Rice University; Larry Johnson, a retired mechanic; and John Branch, a semi-retired contractor who for more than 20 years has patrolled the neighborhood solo in a van decked out with a computer, scanners, radios, a camcorder mounted on the dashboard and even wireless Internet to help him identify sex offenders on the fly.

“I’m not going to be afraid to live in my own neighborhood because of drugs or anything else,” said Branch, president of the community-based Independence Heights War on Drugs, who’s glad now to have company in his quest. “Whatever it takes, we’re going to take back our neighborhood.”

The team is well on its way. Last winter, one crack house it had targeted was finally shut and razed.

Best of all, said Mardie Paige, their efforts are improving neighborhood quality of life.  “Before CPTED and the safety patrol our elderly people were afraid to go out and water their gardens. Now we have elderly people sitting on their porches at night.”

Taking action
Independence Heights, a neighborhood of 14,000 residents about five miles north of downtown Houston, incorporated in 1915 as the state’s first self-governing African American municipality. Houston annexed it in 1929.

Once a thriving, close-knit community with a bustling business district, Independence Heights slowly declined as the integration laws of the 1950s and 60s gradually opened up opportunities elsewhere for jobs, housing and commerce. Change accelerated in the 1980s. Young adults moved away, businesses closed. As drug dealers settled in, the seniors left behind became increasingly isolated and fearful.

Resident engagement is at the heart of efforts to report crime in Houston's Independence Heights neighborhood.

Improving neighborhood safety emerged as a top priority in the community-wide, quality-of-life plan that residents and partners completed in 2010 with support from Houston LISC. The crime prevention training in 2009 was an “early action project” for Independence Heights Development Council, which led the planning.

As a final project, workshop participants completed a neighborhood safety audit. In small groups, they drove the streets at 8 a.m., 2 p.m., 8 p.m. and 2 a.m., observing and taking notes. “The hedges were too high, we had bad lighting, dilapidated buildings,” Paige said.

They identified four crime hotspots in addition to the food store: a crack house at Ajax and 38th; a haven for prostitutes behind the old fire station; a long-time hang-out for drug dealers at the corner of Hinton and 32nd; and McCauliffe Park, where a young couple had recently been murdered.

The park audit won them a quick victory after Paige presented it to their city councilman. Within a month, the city had installed new lighting, trimmed hedges and eliminated a section of trees and shrubbery, making the park and its basketball court easily visible from the street in all directions. “It looked fantastic,” she said.

Educating other residents about crime prevention was the next step. Beginning in September, the safety group hosted three community meetings at different days and times to accommodate both working people and elderly residents. To boost turnout, Johnson walked door-to-door passing out flyers while a community coordinator on the development council helped recruit Spanish-speaking residents, who had moved to the neighborhood in large numbers during the last decade. Nearly half the population is now Latino.

At the meeting, Johnson gave his “nosy neighbor” talk, encouraging residents to keep an eye on their blocks and report unidentified cars, illegal dumping and suspicious activity to 311. “If you just go to your mailbox once a day and look around, that’s visibility,” said Paige. “Nothing replaces a nosy neighbor. Knowing who your neighbors are and their schedules deters crime.”

Getting older residents to call the police took some hand-holding, said Paige. Many feared retaliation from criminals and would call one of the safety team members instead. The Paiges, Johnson or Branch often needed to drive to their homes and encourage them to call.

Link Food was the team’s first surveillance target. They observed at different times of day, sometimes beginning at 8 p.m., midnight or even 3 a.m., usually for two hours. They typically traveled in pairs but sometimes all would turnout in several cars and keep watch from different angles. One night Paige says she got a clear photograph of a man selling alcohol out the back door after 9 p.m., which is illegal in Houston, and small packages of what they assumed to be drugs.

“It was a rush,” said Paige, but with it came sadness at what had become of her neighborhood. “A lot of mixed emotions were there.”

Soon they expanded their surveillance to other hot spots. After finding used condoms and drug paraphernalia behind the old fire station, they asked neighbors to flick on their back porch lights to scare off the johns and prostitutes. It worked. The corner of Hinton and 32nd for a time seemed a never-ending battle, Johnson said. “One group goes away and another shows up. It’s a vicious cycle.” But persistence paid off. “Eventually they got the idea that they can’t hang out there."

Fighting crime through surveillance, said Paige, takes patience. They don’t call the police to report somebody riding by on a bicycle and handing off a package. It isn’t enough to spur the police into action, she says.

Instead, they look for patterns over days and multiple clues: the pungent odor of methamphetamines, sunken facial features that indicate drug addiction, young men coming and going by car or bicycle from a particular residence day after day, suggesting the hub of a drug operation. They record the time of day, license plate numbers. “When we call the police we’ve done our homework,” she notes.

It took time and relationship-building for the surveillance work to make an impact. The police were slow to respond at first, she says. But gradually the group became more familiar to them and earned respect. Her husband got to know a local police officer during a community policing conference in Dallas, a trip sponsored by Houston LISC. Councilman Gonzalez, who had recently been elected, also became an ally.

Working together to improve neighborhood safety has forged bonds between neighbors, too, says Paige. More community volunteers are turning out than ever before: A bicycle patrol led by her husband, which protects students on their way to and from school, has grown to 10 members. And over 100 residents, both African American and Latino, now belong to an emergency response team trained in CPTED strategies and in how to aid neighbors during storms and flooding, a frequent problem in Houston.

Neighbors are once again taking ownership of their community, she noted. “We’re coming back to it being ours.”

Posted in Houston, Community Safety

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