Making Everybody a Crimefighter

When crime blights a community, the police are just part of the solution. The key to turning things around is to engage the community itself.
April 1, 2009 AT 3:00 AM
Frank Fairbanks
By Frank Fairbanks  |  Contributor
Frank Fairbanks was a GOVERNING contributor. He has served as city manager of Phoenix since 1990 and was named one of GOVERNING's Public Officials of the Year in 1994.

One of the most complex and persistent problems in American cities is crime in central, low-income areas. Residents feel helpless. Very limited government resources make it difficult to resolve a Gordian knot of causes.

A simmering problem of crime in four south Phoenix neighborhoods came to a boil in 2007. Violence among gangs affected neighborhood residents, whose only desire was a better life for their families. Drive-by shootings and robberies resulted in the deaths of several innocent young people.

Our police department quickly launched Operation Stabilization, a targeted crime suppression response to uproot long-entrenched gangs, curb violent and gang crime, and improve the community's perception of safety in the four neighborhoods. Police contacted community leaders to ask for their help and support, then saturated the area with "smoke jumpers" who focused on identifying and apprehending the most violent repeat offenders. Their approach was not to question and arrest everyone, recognizing that they needed neighbors at their side to successfully target the worst offenders. Although the suppression efforts did immediately reduce crime, all of the issues that had allowed the problem to grow remained. A more comprehensive, long-term approach was needed.

Where no single entity has the resources to solve such a complex problem, the only possible answer is to involve everyone in the solution.

The city developed the Neighborhood Renewal Project to create long-term partnerships between residents and nine city departments. Key city staff formed a task force under the leadership of Assistant City Manager Alton Washington, who had extensive experience working in lower-income neighborhoods.

The goals of the program were to:

o Implement community-building models to engage community leadership and strengthen community involvement.

o Permanently ensure safe neighborhoods through community based law enforcement strategies.

o Improve the physical condition of neighborhoods through code enforcement, revitalization and construction.

o Create a sustainable community with a strong economic and social foundation.

For police and other departments, getting the right staff involved in the project was critical to its success from the start: good communicators; problem solvers who enjoy looking at all pieces of the puzzle to design new strategies and linkages; experienced staff who had worked in these neighborhoods for many years and saw it as their community too; and employees with a sincere desire to partner with residents to make their neighborhoods better places to live.

All city departments that were independently providing services to these neighborhoods met face to face, some for the first time. These staff, along with city leaders and partner agency representatives, accompanied police on neighborhood ride-alongs to survey the challenges and visit door-to-door with residents.

The next step was to engage the four neighborhoods and enhance their capacity to shape and participate in the program. Nonprofits, faith- and school-based groups were actively recruited and invited to participate. The city's neighborhood services, human services and police departments initially played a key role in bringing residents together, then moved into support roles as residents expressed the desire to coordinate their own meetings.

As neighborhood organizations grew stronger, they engaged in setting priorities, sharing resources and identifying resident volunteers for self-help programs. An action plan was developed. Because the list was so long, actions were separated into short-term, mid-term, and long-term strategies. Neighborhood capacity-building work continued through block parties and neighborhood self-help cleanups. Residents helped set priorities for city and federal investments in their neighborhoods.

Neighborhood safety committees were formed to involve residents in identifying crime problem areas and communicating with the police. These areas received added police attention to investigate drug and violent activity and implement civilian anti-blight programs. Meetings were designed to be convenient for families to attend, with food and on-site child care provided. Multiple meeting locations were identified at churches and other places where people would feel safe. Police demonstrated their commitment to prompt and thorough follow-up on crime issues identified by neighbors. Police went undercover to fight drugs. Through personal phone calls and meetings, police made sure that community leaders were always among the first to know of significant incidents and police responses in their neighborhoods. The relationship goes both ways, and community leaders know whom to call immediately whenever issues arise.

Residents worked with the task force members to improve physical elements of their neighborhoods. The city provided education on code requirements, then proceeded with thorough code enforcement on a staged basis, beginning with the most serious problems. The city identified financial-assistance resources to help low-income residents bring their properties into compliance. Rental unit owners were required to bring their structures up to code and adopt tenant standards of conduct. Homeownership assistance was provided to area residents interested in converting rentals to owner occupancy. Vacant lots were purchased for infill and new housing opportunities focused on serving area residents -- not gentrification. Existing city investments in streets, sidewalks, streetlights and parks are being upgraded as funds become available.

Sustainability is being built through a variety of programs. The city and neighbors worked together to develop educational and early positive intervention strategies for families when youth come into contact with the criminal justice system. Adult access to job training programs was improved. Economic development focused on strengthening existing businesses and adding new businesses in and near these areas. Businesses were encouraged to hire local residents, and local residents were encouraged to use local businesses. Neighbors were educated about eligibility for available social and economic services.

The needs are very large and funding is very limited. Progress is steady but there is still much work to be done. However, crime rates have fallen noticeably and residents feel safer. Neighborhoods look better and the homes are in better condition. Neighbors continue to work together with confidence that they can make a difference. They now believe that the city is their partner and that working with the city will help to improve their neighborhoods and their future. We're looking to start a similar program in another part of the city.

All of this has happened quietly without media or political fanfare. "These neighborhoods did not get into this position overnight and we are not going to be able to see all the problems go away overnight," says Washington, the assistant city manager leading the task force. "But the neighbors see our determination, they see their neighborhoods getting better and they are continuing to work with us to meet our joint goals."