May 12 Neighborhood Watch meeting recap

The 405 project continues.  On Tuesday, May 12th, we held a Webex meeting to further discuss a Neighborhood Watch around the Venice/405 and other 405 underpasses in Culver City.  Former mayor Richard Marcus (1999-2000) was our featured speaker.  He discussed his experience building a Neighborhood Watch around Sunkist Park back in the 90s.  We then looked compared his experiences with our challenges, and what we could learn from him.  We were surprised at how little things change.

Richard talked about the issues in the 90s.  Gangs, drug dealing, dogs defecating in a park where children play.  The breaking point came when people’s cars were being stolen or vandalized in their own driveways, and burglars who tied a homeowner to a chair while they helped themselves to her belongings and food.  Richard realized if he didn’t do something, he’d be next.

Richard started complaining to the police, then realized they don’t know who he is or whether he’s on their side.  They explained the concept of a Neighborhood Watch, and that if he could get eight people together, they’d come and talk to him and his neighbors.  The idea of talking to his neighbors was a foreign concept, but Richard went ahead anyway.  That first meeting, he was hoping for his eight people.  65 people wound up showing up.  That’s how bad things were.

He mentioned three pillars a proper Neighborhood Watch relies on – which definitely chimes with our own experience:

  1. Taking responsibility for our own safety and security.  There’s only so much the police can help us without our support.  We need to take control of our own neighborhood and realize we are the final public safety program.
  2. Active awareness.  We can’t take responsibility for our neighborhood if we’re not aware of it.  A few of us have already started “walking a beat.”  In our current situation, we want to expand this concept and have a full knowledge of everything happening at our underpasses.  The Venice/405 underpass has gotten bad enough where it will be risky, but we have ideas on how to go about it.
  3. Effective communication with police – this was the most important and tough concept to swallow, especially in difficult times like these.  It’s easy for people to get frustrated, and either say police are part of the problem, or worse: take matters into their own hands. 
    Richard really made a strong point here.  Until we have a real relationship with CCPD, they don’t know if we’re part of the problem or the solution.  We need to show we’re on their side.  We need to build a relationship, so that when we call, they know we’re not just some crank, and will take the call seriously.  The more they got to know us, the more likely they are to investigate. 
    A big concept here is “Probable Cause.”  If police go into an area alone, they really don’t have much authority to question people.  Especially in this climate were police are not allowed to “harass” people or “criminalize homelessness.”  But if someone calls in suspicious activity, especially if they’re tied to a reliable Neighborhood Watch, this is their golden ticket to investigate.

A big point he made was to address the crime, not the people.  We’ve already noticed this in our own calls.  If you call in someone sleeping on the sidewalk, the first thing CCPD will ask is “do they look high?  Do they have any weapons?”  They’re looking for signs of criminal activity.  Again, much as some people would like, the police have no authority to stop and question someone for living on the street and “experiencing homelessness.” 

Richard had the same issue with gangs in Sunkist Park in the 90s.  You can’t arrest someone for being in a gang, or hanging around in a park.  Even if you know they’re up to no good, that’s not enough for police to come and do something.  But you can let them know they’re on notice, and the locals are watching and reporting. 

The police do want to help. They just need the authority to act first.  “Yes, the police are on a leash, but they’re still dogs” Richard said to audible laughter.  Again, if we call in suspicious criminal activity, the police will come, and they will have authority to act on it.  Even under the current legal revolving door, when open drug use and other criminal activity gets you in and out of jail in a couple hours.  You still ruined someone’s high for the day. If they know they can’t get high or cause mischief around your block, they’ll go find another spot. 

That makes deterrence the primary goal of a Neighborhood Watch.  Richard mentioned the “Oh Crap” signs they posted around their neighborhood: “If I don’t call you, my neighbor will.”  Someone up to no good sees the sign, and is officially on notice.  Especially once the word gets out that these signs are backed up by residents.

Building the Neighborhood Watch took work, but was not too complicated and is relatively easy to replicate: make flyers about the next meeting, and hand them out around the neighborhood.  Eventually they got to the point where people came up to Richard, upset that they never got a flyer.  Those people “self-identify themselves as volunteers.”  They would get 30 flyers of their own and instructions to hand them around their block.  This is how the watch grew.  For money, they fundraised by selling their “Oh Crap” signs to neighbors.

We learned last night that while we’re in a new situation with the Venice/405 camp, the basic principles haven’t changed.  If we’re vigilant, we can keep control of our neighborhood.  But we need to be disciplined and productive.  We need to go from frustrated individuals to an organization that the police can trust. That’s when we can get our way.

Ultimately, Richard’s Neighborhood Watch was a victim of its own success.  As Sunkist Park got safer, residents got complacent and dropped out.  Meanwhile, people with political agendas found a captive audience to push their politics. 

But there’s no reason we can’t do what Richard and his neighbors did 20 years ago. 

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