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Citizen patrols: self-help to an extreme? Many residents praise them, but critics warn of possible excesses

By Owen ThomasStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / July 5, 1988


Armed with walkie-talkies and determination, groups of Black Muslims and Guardian Angels are trying to push drugs out of neighborhoods in Washington and New York. Many residents welcome them, but police and others warn of vigilantism. In Washington this spring, a Fruit of Islam patrol roughed up a man who reportedly drew a shotgun on them, then attacked a TV crew trying to film the incident. In June, a Guardian Angel was stabbed after a confrontation turned into a melee on a New York street.

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In conversations with police, scholars, and community organizers, a broader context for such high-profile patrols emerges: The apparent willingness of ordinary citizens to confront suspected or actual wrongdoers is an extreme and unwelcome manifestation of self-help, an idea seen in two, more benign trends:

Community organization. Recent crises have drawn neighbors together: increasing crime rates in the 1970s, decreasing federal or other funds in the '80s, and now the specter of crack cocaine (a highly addictive form of the drug). Crack erupted in large American cities just two years ago. Some observers see such self-help efforts as a reemergence of traditional values from an earlier age.

New police philosophy. A growing cadre of police chiefs support so-called ``community-based policing,'' which stresses citizen involvement. A firm tenet of this philosophy is to encourage communities to get together to solve problems - with police help.

But even as more police departments reach out to communities, other residents are becoming more frustrated with the state of criminal justice. ``Government is something they see on TV - they don't see it in their neighborhoods,'' says Thomas Reppetto of New York's Citizens Crime Commission. Desperate, and perhaps encouraged by the success of other community organizing, citizens may try to take matters into their own hands.

Citizen patrols of the kind mounted by Black Muslims and Guardian Angels ``definitely tend toward vigilantism,'' says Mr. Reppetto, a former Chicago police officer. ``I understand it, but I worry about it if citizens have to do what the criminal justice system is supposed to....''

Community anticrime groups were promoted by the National Neighborhood Watch, begun in 1972 under the aegis of the National Sheriffs' Association (NSA). The groups were seen as an antidote to the demise of a time when everyone knew everyone else - when mothers stayed home, families stayed put, and life centered on the community.

Citizens and police both recognized that you couldn't put a cop on every corner. But officers could give advice on home security and urge citizens to get together and look out for one another. Today, the NSA estimates there are 10 million people in Crime Watch groups.

Often, organized communities kept on organizing, adding such things as youth projects, victim assistance programs, and more. When federal funds were tightened in the '80s, more communities banded together to get things done. And when crack cocaine began to overwhelm neighborhoods despite police efforts, residents knocked on the doors of the community groups.

The Citizens Committee for New York City (CCNYC) coordinates and advises some 300 neighborhood groups on ways to deal with illegal drugs. Antidrug patrols may have a high media profile, community organizer Felice Jergens says, but they are ``the least significant and most infrequently done.''

The CCNYC advocates a three-track strategy: