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.