COPing an Attitude
A six-foot-high cyclone fence surrounds the New Horizons apartments in Liberty City. At the entrance to the seven-story building, a security door is always locked. After dark many of the building's residents, most of whom are elderly and black, stay behind their locked apartment doors. They are not afraid to go out. But they are not foolhardy, either. They know that thugs have robbed the market across Seventh Avenue. A mugger attacked an elderly man in the New Horizons parking lot. One resident, Hazel Elijah, saw young men strip a car outside, beneath her back window.
In the past two months, three City of Miami police officers have helped New Horizons residents feel safe by urging them to patrol the perimeter of their yard in groups to scare off would-be intruders. They wear black T-shirts and black caps with golden eagle logos that identify them as Citizens on Patrol. They are on the lookout for vandals, robbers, and drug dealers. The police have taught the volunteers to note suspicious strangers, and to go home and relay the information by dialing a phone number at the police station that is dedicated solely to their calls.
"We are not police," says the 59-year-old Elijah. "We don't have the authority to mess around and get hurt."
Elijah and her fellow New Horizons residents also talk almost every day to Joe Bradwell, the officer assigned to their group. Fostering that sort of rapport between citizens and police is another objective of the year-old Citizens on Patrol (COP) program, which is modeled on successful endeavors in New York City and Washington, D.C., and which marked an anniversary of sorts this month when 300 volunteers lined up to have photos snapped for their official ID badges.
Less than a mile away from New Horizons, at the Liberty Square Housing Development, the officers' rapport with residents stands on a less secure foundation -- a few years of slowly growing trust balanced against a history of hostilities that date back to before the McDuffie riots of 1980. Some residents, though, are so determined to improve their lives and the lives of their children that many have embraced the COP program despite their misgivings. Miami Police Lt. Melvin Uptgrow, who is in charge of training officers to work the dozen COP divisions across the city, hails the Liberty Square volunteers -- nearly all of whom are women -- as some of the city's most enthusiastic. But some of the participants dismiss COP as an insincere public relations ploy and say they have endured a year of unkept promises and unrealized expectations.
For one thing, they fear for their own safety while on patrol. In other neighborhoods, it might not be hard to find an inconspicuous place from which to observe criminal activity, but not here. Shade trees were cut down so crooks couldn't lurk among them; the lack of vegetation, coupled with the barrackslike layout of the project's 753 units, creates vast empty corridors. In this dozen-block enclave, moreover, word spreads quickly when someone helps the police. The fact that much of the criminal activity they witness involves people they recognize only makes matters worse.
"You know what happens to snitches," says 37-year-old Virginia Williams, who helps mobilize her neighbors for the COP program and for other meetings. "I'm not going to be out here with a shirt and a cap walking around this area."
Williams's neighbor, 28-year-old Josie Smith, shares her fears. "I see and don't see, I hear and don't say. I'm not going to get killed for nothing," Smith says.
Even if the volunteers did feel comfortable policing their neighbors, there's the matter of how to contact the police. At the outset, police officers told potential recruits they'd try to obtain and distribute telephones programmed with special codes and numbers that could be used exclusively for COP calls.
Lieutenant Uptgrow says his department hasn't been able to hand out cell phones because COP has no dedicated funding source. Instead, the police officers themselves have scavenged for equipment and obtained donations from companies. The T-shirts and caps are printed in-house, and the cost of whistles and fluorescent vests hardly makes a dent in the department's budget.
"We were fortunate that AT&T donated phones," says Uptgrow, adding that those fifteen pieces of equipment will soon be distributed. "We don't have money to buy phones."
Several of the volunteers say Commissioner Miller Dawkins helped stoke their skepticism at a commission meeting in May when he offered to try to drum up stipends for them. The volunteers have heard nothing about the money since.
"He was appalled that none of us were being paid," reports Helen Hamilton, a COP volunteer who is also president of the Liberty Square Residents' Association. "He said he was going to work with the rest of the board to find some money to get us paid."
Dawkins did not return phone calls requesting comment for this story, nor did he respond to faxed questions about the purported offer. COP organizer Ofcr. Gisela Ramirez says Dawkins's statement pertained to money for equipment, not stipends. But in separate interviews, no fewer than five COP volunteers vehemently disputed her version of events, recalling that Dawkins used the word stipend.
Their skepticism about the program may be well founded. Community patrolling programs have a lackluster performance record even in neighborhoods with low crime rates, according to experts cited in a July 1995 study by a Florida International University graduate student. The performance drops in high crime areas, the experts said. "Rigorous evaluations of community crime prevention initiatives have by and large failed to find clear-cut evidence of success," concluded author Steven Ellison, after spending nine months scrutinizing crime-prevention volunteer programs in eleven Dade neighborhoods.
Community harmony can be a casualty of neighborhood policing programs, particularly in dense neighborhoods such as housing projects, says Suman Kakar, an assistant professor at Florida International University who is studying community policing in Carol City, and who was consulted by Ellison for his study.
"Community policing, instead of helping people establish friendly relationships, can backfire and create animosity," Kakar explains. "You're going to be afraid of reprisals."
Ellison's study did point to cell phones as useful tools in crime prevention, allowing the volunteers to access police officers rapidly and providing an incentive to remain active. "The volunteers felt that police response to in-progress events was faster," Ellison found. During nine months of cellular phone use, the combined incidence of burglaries, robberies, and thefts in the study area dropped by nearly 30 percent.
Last week, flanked by community police volunteer leaders and telephone industry officials in Washington D.C., President Clinton helped launch a nationwide campaign to donate 50,000 phones to neighborhoods for crime-watch groups across the nation. The president mentioned the FIU study as proof of the phones' efficacy.
Liberty Square residents, however, are unswayed by the rhetoric. Long before the police launched the COP program, the association had appointed its own block captains to accompany children to school and to maintain the appearance of the apartments -- painted in Art Deco pastels at the residents' request. The neatness of the place, with its trim strips of mown grass and litter-free sidewalks, helps keep out many criminals, some residents believe.
"My place is here with my kids," says Virginia Williams. "I'm not going to be out there and save people. I can save people right here.
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Miami, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.