Fighting crime without fear

As a child, Desiree Welch-Schorn could walk to school alone. She could ride her bike as far as her feet would take her, sometimes leaving home only with a promise to be back by dark.

Today, this neighborhood mom believes stricter rules are necessary to keep her three children -Alexandra, 10; Paul, 13; and Josh, 15 – safe. She keeps in contact via cell phones and beepers. She knows where they are and whom they are with.

“I’m pretty cautious,” she says. “The youngest is not allowed to go places by herself. Even to visit a friend down the street, someone goes with her.

“You never know who is out on the street these days.”

Most of us have heard the good news that crime is down. The FBI has announced that serious crime reported to the police has dropped for the sixth consecutive year, with a 4 percent decrease for 1997. A 9 percent decline was noted in murders and robberies, the largest decline in a violent-crime category.

This national trend is mirrored in our own neighborhoods, where records from the Northeast Operations Division show declines last year in every category except for business burglaries. Crimes such as murder, rape and burglaries of homes and vehicles have been steadily dropping since 1994 and 1995.

But these numbers, for many, don’t add up to a greater sense of security. Even in decline, crime has made it mark. For our own safety, we are taught that the world is a dangerous place where anyone can be a victim. Don’t expect this lesson to change. It’s that kind of awareness, police say, that can curb crime.

“Instead of kids just hanging out with other kids in the neighborhood, there are more organized outings,” says Welch-Schorn. “I don’t think it will return to another kind of environment.

“Younger kids don’t walk down the block just to go to the playground.”

Living in a cautious world

Welch-Schorn talks with her youngsters about how crime touches their lives. They have told her what they have glimpsed of gangs and drug use.

“They know you have to responsible,” she says. “Good kids can be hurt just by being in the wrong place, or even the right place if the wrong people are around.”

Sometimes, they disagree with her restrictions. If possible, a compromise is negotiated. But “if it’s something I feel strongly about, I explain the reasons and that it is something they will have to accept this time.

“I tell them: You’re not replaceable.”

Neighborhood mom Lupe Mata has also heard cry of “overprotective” from her youngsters Ruben, 14; Monica, 10; Adriana, 9; and Rene, 6.

“We will not let them go out in front without someone out there,” Mata says. “They want to ride bikes – call me overprotective or whatever.

“If they’re outside, there will always be someone with them.”

Mata talks with her children about not opening the door when someone knocks and about the need to be careful with strangers, even friendly ones. Her biggest problem is during shopping trips where the youngsters try to wander.

“It scares me,” she says. “They think stuff like kidnapping won’t happen to them.”

Still, both mothers do find a degree of comfort in their neighborhoods because of eagle-eyed neighbors. Welch-Schorn says her Ridgewood Park neighborhood association has done more to make her feel secure than the alarm she had installed after a long-ago house burglary.

“People who are used to the security system can be in and out before the police arrive,” she says. “When you have neighbors looking out, they can keep crime from happening instead of reacting afterward.

“Some people may just see that as nosy neighbors,” she adds, laughing. “I don’t. It depends on what your needs are.”

Mata’s Lower Greenville block does not have a formal neighborhood assocation or Crime Watch. But the eyes are out there.

“We have a lot of little kids in the neighborhood, and everybody is supportive,” Mata says. “You see them out with their parents. I don’t ever see any kids just by themselves.

“My block is pretty safe,” she says. “We have people watching out for each other.

“Other blocks – ugghh – I don’t even want to think about it.”

Community is key

That sense of community spirit – and greater security – comes when people are fighting crime in a positive way, say police and other criminal justice experts.

Sgt. Mark Smith, supervisor of the Inner-Community Policing program at Northeast, knows that many factors have contributed to the crime dip. This 18-year veteran says programs such as Expanded Neighborhood Patrol (where neighbors pool funds to hire off-duty police officers are additional patrols) and Volunteers in Patrol (where police-trained volunteers patrol the neighbor in order to report suspicious activity to officers) have made a difference.

The ICP program involved dividing Northeast into six sections, each getting additional officers committed to building relationships with neighbors, business owners, apartment managers and crime groups in a way that can’t be done through traditional “call and response” patrolling.

“I want to give credit there to the VIPs,” Smith says. “Because of them, because of Crime Watch groups, we are able to take the bulls by the horns.

“Some police officers want to be the tough guys out there. But we can’t be everywhere,” Smith says. “We need those eyes and ears. It takes  involvement in the community. It takes saying: We need help.”

Northeast is now seeing a reversal of the “broken window” theory, wherein if one neighborhood house has a broken window that goes unfixed, other residents around that house follow suit – eventually leading to deterioration in that neighborhood.

“We have the opposite,” Smith says. “People are watching. People are taking pride.”

Action, not fear

For most people, Smith says, staying aware of crime and its potential to strike will only help.

“It’s a sign of the times,” Smith says. “Most people have not grown up with a neighborhood where there is not a crime problem. It’s the exact opposite.”

That awareness can be constructive or destructive, he says.

“If crime affects us to where we have bars on windows, 16 locks on doors and don’t trust anyone – that’s not the way life should be,” he says.

“I don’t like burglar bars. It’s like you’re in a prison. Instead, be a catalyst to change. Get involved. Then you don’t need burglar bars.”

That involvement can take the form of joining Crime Watch or volunteering in after-school programs – whatever the needs are in your neighborhood.

“When I moved into my particular neighborhood, some people thought I was crazy. Why move into that part of town?” he says. “I know what’s needed over there, and I can handle it rather than move to the suburbs.”

Dr. Richard Hawkins, an SMU professor specializing in criminal justice, echoes the virtues of community involvement.

“From the perspective of the criminal mind, you can tell just driving through when it’s a community rather than a collection of unrelated houses,” Hawkins says. “One reason why apartment complexes are at risk is because they are large and no one knows anyone.

“An organized community is more likely to report crimes to the police. An invasion of one is an invasion into all,” he says. “In the ’60s, there was more antagonism between people in the community and police. In the era of community policing, that’s changed and that’s a positive.”

These programs offer psychological as well as practical comfort, Hawkins says.

“My view of those programs is that they just benefit people, even if they’re not necessarily crime-reducing. They solve the psychological problem of isolation and fear of being alone,” he says. “An additional feature is that people are more happy and satisfied with urban life.”

Ultimately, crime in a neighborhood evokes either a “fight or flight” response.

“People think they just have to have a better neighborhood or a rural environment and they would so much better off,” Hawkins says. “Those who leave will be sorely disappointed to discover that crime is not just an urban deviation.

“At some point, crime forces people to stop and take a stand. You can’t keep running,” he adds. “You can become someone armed to the teeth building a militia. Or you can have a strategy that involves other people building a community”

Staying to fight

Without knowing it, Hawkins is describing how Munger Place resident Charles Irsch pondered his options in the early ’90s. This father of two didn’t feel the neighborhood, troubled by crack houses, prostitution and other woes, would be a good place to raise children. But he didn’t want to leave.

“About five years ago, there was a huge need in our neighborhood with the criminal issues we had,” Irsch says. “We knew we had to get involved.”

The result was the MPHD Alliance Against Crime, formed with the sole purpose of funding and administering what eventually became the ENP program (known only in the early days, facetiously, as “rent a cop.”).

The last survey taken indicated a 60 percent drop in crime in Munger Place since the establishment of the ENP.

“We’ve seen huge benefits,” Irsch says. “It’s really increased the police presence in our neighborhood. It’s a targeted effort. The officers are very pro-active.

“They would take action to get things shut down that didn’t belong in our neighborhood.”

Today, Munger Place is a different neighborhood than what it was in the early ’90s, when crime “diminished the vibrancy of East Dallas in general.”

“There was a bunker mentality,” Irsch says. “Few families were moving in. It was real easy to lock your doors and stay in. In fact, it was probably safer. “People would back down and not interact with neighbors. Frankly, I think it scared people.”

Vandalism is now the main scourge of the neighborhood.

“Not to diminish that as a petty thing. No crime is tolerable, but I would rather have that than the way it was in the early ’90s.

“People are more comfortable being out and about now. Absolutely,” he says. “It wasn’t an easy fight, though.”

Officer Christina Smith, an ENP officer for Munger Place, now lives in the neighborhood she has patrolled for about five years. She agrees the additional police presence has made “a big difference.” So has cooperation between neighbors.

“A lot of my friends think it’s strange that three neighbors have the keys to my house. I don’t even think about it.”

During one five-week period, burglaries were higher than normal because of what was revealed as one individual targeting detachable garages. The word was put out to neighbors, and one eventually spotted a man entering the garage. Police arrived in time, and an arrest was made.

“Neighborhood awareness matters,” she says. “Getting out and knowing your neighbors. Don’t just walk into the door and not come out until the next day.”

Finding a balance

Be aware. Get involved. When it comes to being safety-smart but not crime-crazy, knowledge can be a powerful weapon.

Chris Eckhardt, a clinical psychologist and Vickery Place resident who teaches at SMU, says that being aware of crime risks “enhances your ability to get out of harm’s way.”

“The police have done an outstanding job of communicating with residents about prevention efforts,” he says. “It’s a good idea to slow people down.

“Overall, that brings more individual peace of mind. It probably makes people more aware of situations that could be threatening or dangerous.”

Eckhardt describes the media reports on “road rage” as a case where people have learned to protect themselves by changing behavior.

“In the last three or four years, we’ve heard a lot about that,” he says. “And I’m perceiving that people are less likely to stretch a finger out or speed up when someone cuts them off.”

Another example: When two people are involved in a physical altercation, help by calling the police.
“The most dangerous thing you can do at that point is to step in,” Eckhardt says. “So many people are injured as the third party.

“When you’re aware of a dangerous situation and what triggers it, that’s a good thing.”

Sgt. Smith agrees, and compares those who go too far to the hypochondriac who continues to gather information to feed his theories.

“Most people will not become obsessed,” Smith says. “The best person we’ve got is the little old lady who knows everything.

“She’s not obsessed with writing down every license plate she sees to give to us. She’s not paranoid.”

To Hawkins, crime awareness needs only be combined with common sense.

“There are people in this country who live behind burglar bars,” Hawkins says. “They are in a prison more than the guys in prison.

“What’s needed is to try and maximize your freedom without doing anything stupid. That’s not eloquent, but that’s where we are in the ’90s.”


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