Vigilance or Vigilantes?

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"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."

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Betty Mihalopoulos