The crime news was good for a change. Last year, Highland Park showed a drop of 22 percent in its crime rate, while in Detroit, which surrounds this tiny city in its midst, crime rose 20 percent.
Clearly something constructive was going on in these few square miles of inner-city turf -but what?
Highland Park was once a community of elegant homes, pleasant shops, and thriving factories nestled within the borders of Detroit in its northcentral area. Then, in the last few decades, it suffered the same urban blight and decay as its neighbors. Today, it has its share of worn or boarded-up homes and stores , and most of its factories are deserted caves of rubble and broken glass.
As big city crime moved northward up the Woodward Avenue corridor ( which splits the eastern and western halves of Detroit), Highland Park suffered from burglaries, assaults, and homicides in what had once been a protected haven of law-abiding citizens.
In the shock waves that followed, some residents fled; but those who stayed proved to be a sturdy, loyal lot. They took a hard look around and decided they would stand and fight for their neighborhood against the pervasive crime that was trying to destroy them.
"We got our dander up," one citizen says.
Their first step was to organize into block clubs and almost a dozen neighborhood advisory-councils under the umbrella of the city's Citizen District Council. This group worked closely with police and city officials.
Then, three years ago, the Citizen District Council established a program called Community Against Crime (CAC), funded by the now-defunct federal Law Enforcement Assistance Administration ( LEAA).
"We've established four educational programs involving every man, woman, and child," says Bertha Williams, CAC project director. "We feel an alert citizenry can stop a lot of crime before it happens and help the police catch wrongdoers so Highland Park becomes off limits to the criminal element. We're only surprised that we've been so effective so fast."
The four Community Against Crime programs credited with helping turn the tide against crime are:
* Neighborhood Watch: Residents are trained to spot suspicious people and situations and make accurate, concise reports to police.
* Court Watch: Volunteers are trained to attend trials, provide evaluations of court proceedings and processes, and give moral support to victims of crime who are often afraid to testify.
* Youth Hit Squad: Young people are involved in positive, constructive, recreational, and community programs serving all ages.
* Child Protection Project: Children and families are trained in measures of self-protection and the entire community is trained to respond to any child in need of help.
A large gathering of citizens at Gabriel Apartments last spring is typical of the training meetings put on by CAC staff members. They were invited by the apartment manager when some tenants became alarmed over break-ins in the neighborhood. While their own building was safe, they wanted information to help keep it that way.
Police Lt. John Holloway urged them to politely but openly question any strangers. This, he noted, would discourage criminals by letting them know people were alert to their presence.
Then a CAC coordinator and trainer, Ron Seigel, enacted the role of a witness or victim phoning the police, outlining the following correct reporting procedure:
First, give the exact location. Then tell if the assailant is armed and if anyone at the scene needs emergency help. Next, describe the direction taken by the assailant and whether on foot or by car. If by car, describe the color, make , any identifying characteristics (smashed headlight, dented fender), and above all, try to get the license number. Give as detailed a description of the suspect or suspects as possible.
A detailed description might include the suspect's sex, race, height, build, weight, age, style and color of clothing, and any identifying features such as a beard or mustache. an accent, a scar, tattoo, skin blemishes, glasses, a certain way of walking or talking. Remember what is said, especially any names or nicknames that are used.
"This aids the police immeasurably," Mr. Seigel says. "Recently, a woman who witnessed an assault was able to give such a complete description that she was complimented by the police. She said: 'Well, I was trained by CAC.'"
Mr. Seigel also addressed the children in the audience about the need to describe accurately any stranger who might approach them.
"We instruct them not only to never speak to or go with strangers," he says, "but also to call the police immediately and report anyone who has accosted them."
At a recent child safety meeting sponsored by CAC, Highland Park police officer Mark Storen warned parents to know where their children were at all times and urged children to help by letting parents know their whereabouts. He provided names and phone numbers for residents to report any vacant or abandoned houses, since these, he said, are often the scenes of crimes against children.
Dr. George N'Namdi, a child psychologist at Wayne State University's Center for Black Studies, pointed out that while there are no simple solutions to the problems parents face, they should try to establish good communication by speaking "with" their children, not "at" them.
He stressed that children need rules and boundaries and should know clearly what they can and cannot do, something parents can instill without creating irreparable fear.
Regina Evans, a mother and member of Cortland-3 Block Club, told a Michigan Chronicle reporter: "All of us, even childless or single people, must work to protect children. They are all our children. We cannot see our city become another Atlanta."
CAC recently sponsored an in-service training program in self-defense for 50 Highland Park educational secretaries. A panel of six Highland Park police officers and experts led a workshop dealing with crimes against women which included discussions of the motives and consequences of rape, the importance of pressing charges, and the phone number of the local Rape Counseling Service, where emotional support and advice is available if an attack occurs.
Highland Park teen-agers who belong to the Hit Squad against crime have adopted their own version of the Athenian Oath:
"I promise to protect my neighborhood and everyone in it -children, adults, senior citizens, my family, friends and classmates, those of all races and religions -and to help other neighborhoods and communities all over the world to try to improve things."
Primarily from the Ford-Pasadena Block Club, the 20 youngsters participate in the Detroit Area Conference of the National Council of Christians and Jews. They tutor younger children having trouble in school.
All this CAC activity is in constant jeopardy for lack of funds, says its director.
"When our LEAA grant was abolished, we received a small contribution from the Sage Foundation, but that is just about gone," Ms. Williams reports. "We are searching desperately for a way to keep going."
Meanwhile, Ms. Williams and Mr. Seigel are volunteering their time to keep the office open.
"We are trying to build a sense of community within a city in modern times," Mr. Seigel says, "and I think we can show not only Highland Park but the rest of the country that this community spirit can solve problems."