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

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.

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:

Seek more effective law enforcement. Learn what police and courts can do, and compare it with what they are doing in your community. Open channels of communication with the police; explore ways to share information. Monitor cases through the court system to ensure the community's voice is heard.

Seek ways to prevent substance abuse. ``If there's a demand, there will be a supply,'' Ms. Jergens points out. Meetings with drug experts about symptoms of drug abuse and treatment options, school programs that may include visits by ex-addicts, films, and ``Just Say No'' nights address the demand side.

Mobilize the community. Banners, candlelight vigils, pledges, and regular neighborhood meetings let the politicians, law-enforcement officers, residents, and drug sellers and users know that you're not going to tolerate criminal behavior.

Criminal gangs are not a new problem, says James Q. Wilson, an expert on crime and community patrols who teaches at the University of California, Los Angeles. ``We had this problem during Prohibition, we had this problem around the turn of the century when immigrants were filling up the big cities,'' he says. ``We had this problem in the 1830s, when the gangs were called `volunteer fire departments' who used to riot and tear things apart....

``In each case it turns out that in the first instance it is a law-enforcement problem. The police have to win back control of the streets from the gangs.'' Community groups can help keep a neighborhood free of drugs, he says, but they should not take the initial steps.

Tactics that have shown to be effective against gangs have been used by police in Washington and New York, Professor Wilson says. But such operations as street sweeps, ``stings,'' and close watch on gang members require a massive commitment of manpower and resources, and a sustained effort is very costly.

The growing popularity of ``community-based policing'' holds out a significant hope to Wilson.

A ``new breed'' of police chief in Houston, Boston, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and many other places is saying to communities that ``we want to work with you ... otherwise, we're outmanned and outgunned,'' in Wilson's words. They seek out community involvement, encourage block organizations.

This philosophy takes a pro-active view of crime, and looks at citizens not as potential victims or potential informants but as ``co-producers'' of law enforcement, says National Crime Prevention Council spokesman Leonard Sipes. He likens this development to the introduction of radio-equipped patrol cars in the '30s and '40s.

One example of the new police philosophy is in Florida. The summer before last, crack cocaine hit Miami. Law-enforcement officers in Orlando looked on with alarm, realizing their communities might be next. At the urging of the sheriff's office a coalition of community groups organized an ``attack crack'' campaign that ran that fall, which included school programs on crack's dangers and a march downtown. ``For once,'' spokesman W.H. Ricks says, ``we had a little foresight.'' He gives the campaign credit for the fact that Orlando has not had a crack bust on a school campus.

Baltimore's COPE program (Community Oriented Police Enforcement), upon which Orlando's community policing program is based, began in 1982. COPE officers cruise in subcompact cars and on small motorcycles. They have gone door to door, polling citizens on what problems they see. ``Forget tradition,'' Baltimore County Police Chief Cornelius Behan tells officers. ``Identify the problem and solve it.'' This may mean anything from getting potholes filled, to organizing the community, to solving murders. Citizen approval has been very high, he says.

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