Vigilance or Vigilantes?
It's a Friday and the sun is setting on a central Phoenix neighborhood where crack houses are at least as common as Circle Ks.
Patrick Walsh, a 67-year-old member of Neighbors on Patrol, decides he wants to exchange philosophies with a street hooker. He grabs his walker--Walsh was born with cerebral palsy--and hobbles over to the sidewalk where a 30-something woman is standing. Her ensemble--a generic tee shirt and a denim skirt--is hardly standard lady-of-the-evening garb, but she makes little secret of her line of work.
In his Texas drawl, Walsh tells the woman she needs to "get off the street, join the church, get religion and go to work in a Jack in the Box."
She responds by reminding the older man that God loves a sinner. If she stopped sinning, the woman notes, then God wouldn't love her anymore.
"If you really want to do something about crime," she says, "you should go after the child molesters and leave the prostitutes alone."
Neighbors on Patrol is not about to let the hookers be. Most Block Watch groups look for signs of crime near their homes and call police when suspicious activity occurs. Members of Neighbors on Patrol strap on guns and walk the seedy streets of Phoenix's Oakland-University Park neighborhood. They use bullhorns and spotlights to harass those they consider to be criminal "suspects." Sometimes, group leaders even provoke verbal confrontations with supposed prostitutes or drug dealers.
This confrontative approach has produced some positive results. Police officials say they have faith in Neighbors on Patrol's assessment of criminal activity, and the group has helped shut down several area crack houses through legal action.
But Neighbors on Patrol has its share of detractors. A man who has owned a bar in the neighborhood for 35 years says the group has harassed him for no reason and is driving away his legitimate customers. Police say they are wary of the group's penchant for carrying guns on patrol. And some observers are asking whether Neighbors on Patrol should continue to receive government funding meant to bolster the activities of Block Watch patrols throughout the city. Neighbors on Patrol has received $10,000 in city funds--even though the group is not part of the neighborhood patrol program officially sanctioned by the Phoenix Police Department.
Every weekend, a group of 12 men and women meets in a parking lot at Ninth Avenue and Grand. Like police officers at afternoon shift change, they start the evening by discussing the latest criminal trends. Then the people who make up Neighbors on Patrol head out in their vehicles to search for criminal activity.
For two years, members of the patrol have shined spotlights, honked car horns and blared bullhorns at prostitutes and drug dealers who solicit customers from the street corners of Oakland-University Park, a lower-income neighborhood of central Phoenix roughly bounded by Central Avenue on the east, 19th Avenue on the west, Roosevelt Avenue on the north and Jefferson Street on the South.
Neighbors on Patrol uses scanners to monitor police calls in the area. When group members witness a crime, they notify police with cellular phones provided by the city of Phoenix. But the bulk of the group's patrol time is spent gathering information on houses and apartment complexes where they believe crack and other drugs are sold.
Most of the members carry guns but say they won't use them unless they need to protect themselves. Because Neighbors on Patrol is highly visible and dedicated to confronting "undesirables," arguments often erupt. Some of these disputes have escalated beyond name-calling. At least two of the members have reported to police that they have had their lives threatened.
Perhaps the most visible and argumentative member of Neighbors on Patrol is Harold Fox, who not only heads the patrol group but also serves as president of the Oakland-University Park neighborhood association.
Fox says he used to be involved with the area's police-sanctioned Block Watch group. But he says he got tired of Block Watch meetings. There, he said, people only talked about crime in the neighborhood; nothing was being done to stop it.
"That particular program does not bring the presence of the neighborhood down to the criminals," Fox says. "In a neighborhood like ours that is completely overrun, these people [criminals] have to understand that we are not going to put up with it."
Fox, who has lived in the neighborhood since 1967, says Neighbors on Patrol is predominantly an information-gathering group. Its main role, he says, is to feed information on criminal activity in Oakland-University Park to the police.
But Fox also says Neighbors on Patrol hopes to remove the majority of the criminal element from the neighborhood by denying it a comfortable place to exist and grow.
"Talking to the drug dealers and prostitutes and harassing the bad guys on the street is a small part of what we do, but it's very important, because we want them to know they are not welcome here," he says.
And Neighbors on Patrol has changed the neighborhood.
With the help of the City Attorney's Office, Fox says, the group has been using a legal process known as abatement to shut down crack houses.
The abatement law allows the city to hold landlords responsible for criminal activity on properties they own. If the landlord does not take measures to resolve the crime problem within a given time, the city can sue the landlord and ask that the property be padlocked for one year.
Most of the landlords opt to kick out the bad tenants and clean up the property rather than go to court.
"Over 70 percent of the houses in the Oakland-University Park neighborhood are rented, and many of them from absentee landlords," says Fox. "Instead of trying to run off the crack dealers, we decided to go after the landlords instead and hold them responsible for the illegal activity on their property."
With funding provided by the city and on recommendation from Fox, the neighborhood association also fenced in University Park, which had been a haven for drug addicts, vagrants and prostitutes.
Linda Tuck, coordinator for city recreation centers in an area that includes University Park, says closing the park was unfortunate, but it was something that had to be done.
"Our maintenance people could spend their whole eight-hour shift cleaning up nothing but after the homeless and their trash," she says. "And the bathrooms were always dirty because of the drug addicts and the prostitutes. The kids had to step around them."
In addition to its other activities, Neighbors on Patrol has provided the police department with more than 45 addresses where, Fox says, crack is being sold on a regular basis. Fox says he and other members of the group monitored the foot traffic in and out of the houses for more than 500 hours.
Commander Ron Bates of the South Mountain Police Precinct says the group has been very accurate in its reports.
"They have really done some admirable work and are really determined to take their neighborhood back," says Bates. "You have to admire a group like that."
But not everyone admires everything Neighbors on Patrol does.
There are some people in Oakland-University Park who believe the members of Neighbors on Patrol are bullies, not heroes. One of those critics owns Shorty's Cocktails, located at Ninth Avenue and Grand. The family-owned business has been in the neighborhood for about 35 years. It was opened by the late Shorty Emerson; now it is run by his son Ken, who is 80 years old. Ken would like for his daughter Kerry to continue the tradition.
But now the bar has a "For Sale" sign out front, and Ken Emerson blames Neighbors on Patrol.
Emerson acknowledges that seedy characters began loitering outside the bar around 1992. And the outside of Shorty's Cocktails is a spray of graffiti.
But inside is a splendid rosewood bar imported from England in the 1800s, a reminder of prior dignity. And Emerson insists he has done everything he can to run a respectable business in a declining neighborhood.
Members of Neighbors on Patrol regularly park across the street from Shorty's. When people loiter outside the bar--people whom Neighbors on Patrol believe are prostitutes and drug dealers--they get hit with spotlights and volleys of wisecracks.
Emerson says the group, particularly Harold Fox, wants to run him out of business simply because he sells alcohol and is one of the only businesses in the neighborhood open after 5 p.m. He says Neighbors on Patrol is chasing off his legitimate customers in an attempt to eliminate the criminal element outside.
Emerson admits that when the neighborhood began to decline, the quality of some of his customers went down with it. But he says the problem is the neighborhood, not his business.
"What am I supposed to do, ask people for their drug-dealer identification when they come through the door?" he asks.
"If they [Neighbors on Patrol] are so against these people, why don't they take their guns off and come inside so we can talk about it?" Emerson adds.
Neighbors on Patrol is not interested in entering Shorty's or talking to its owner. Fox says it's not his responsibility to manage someone else's business; his main goal is to focus on drug activity and remove it from the neighborhood.
"Emotions will not solve the problem; working on the problem will," he says. "Our presence is there because of the activity around the outside of the bar."
But Ron Walker, a former bartender at Shorty's, questions Fox's motives, and his goals.
"I'm certain there is a need for the Foxes in the world, but he can't trash a bar that's been in the neighborhood for over 30 years for the sake of his ego," Walker says.
Emerson and Walker are hardly the only critics of Neighbors on Patrol.
Richard Fox, president of the city's Block Watch advisory board, a volunteer group that serves as a liaison between neighborhoods and the police department, also questions the tactics of Neighbors on Patrol. Fox (no relation to Neighbors on Patrol leader Harold Fox) says he had no idea that members of Neighbors on Patrol carried guns until he was asked about the practice for this article.
"A lot of what he [Harold Fox] does is helpful and productive, but there is a line he is crossing, and once he has crossed that line, he is no longer getting people to work together to solve the problem," Richard Fox says. "He stubbornly and impatiently and inappropriately is demanding a solution."
Neighbors on Patrol is not affiliated with Block Watchers on Patrol, an organization of citizens trained by the Phoenix Police Department to patrol their neighborhoods in a "nonconfrontational and low-risk manner."
Members of Block Watchers on Patrol are strictly prohibited from carrying guns, and vigilante activity is strongly discouraged.
Even police commander Ron Bates, who is generally supportive of Neighbors on Patrol, questions the group's penchant for carrying guns.
Although it is not police-sanctioned, Neighbors on Patrol received $10,000 this year in city Block Watch funds. The group used the money to pay for cellular phones and other equipment.
Now, Richard Fox says he hopes city officials will draw new guidelines for monitoring the Block Watch grant process. He says his committee will strongly consider advising the city council not to give money to gun-toting groups like Neighbors on Patrol.
"I don't want to see a movement of this type growing citywide," Richard Fox says.
The criticisms of Neighbors on Patrol do not appear likely to deter its members from their regular rounds. They insist they have broken no laws--it is, after all, legal to carry registered guns in Arizona--and they don't seem to care if others consider their group a vigilante committee.
In fact, they seem to relish the controversy that comes their way.
"We're just a group of concerned citizens trying to take our neighborhood back from the dirt bags," Patrick Walsh says. "And if that makes us vigilantes, then so be it. Just make sure you spell my name right.
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