TROUBLE IN THE 'HOOD
Last year, in the midst of Denver's "Summer of Violence," Mayor Wellington Webb took several steps to help stem the flow of blood on city streets. One was beefing up the "Neighborhood Watch" program with civilian employees, who could overcome mistrust of the police in high-crime areas and help organize the city block by block.
Now, however, critics charge that a bureaucratic tug-of-war is hampering the program's effectiveness.
Webb wants control of the new civilian component of Neighborhood Watch to rest in the hands of his Agency for Human Rights and Community Relations (HRCR). Others, like neighborhood activist Jan Belle and Councilwoman Mary DeGroot, say it would be smarter and more efficient to have the police department in charge of the whole effort.
"It doesn't make any sense to me," says Belle, executive director of the SouthWest Improvement Council, a neighborhood group. "My vote is to stick with the police. They're the ones who can arrest the bad guys."
"I'm tired of having to deal with this turf battle," DeGroot says. "When you set it up under two different [departments], you're going to have conflict."
Next week, at Webb's request, the city council will consider whether to take $60,000 from the police budget and transfer it to HRCR. It would be the second such transfer of funds this year. The money--$120,000 in all--has been earmarked to pay the salaries of four fulltime "neighborhood watch coordinators," who have been canvassing the city on behalf of the program for the last several months.
The rationale for the move is that the nature of crime in Denver has changed dramatically in recent years.
Back in 1981, when Neighborhood Watch started here, burglary and theft were the city's main crime problems. The program was administered entirely by the police, who counted on residents to take initiative and organize themselves. In order to be included in Neighborhood Watch, 75 percent of the people from a city block were required to etch their valuables with identification numbers and then turn in lists of the marked property to the department. The lists helped police track and recover stolen items in the wake of break-ins. In turn, each police district assigned a uniformed "community resource officer" to work with block representatives on ways to keep crime in check.
But city officials have determined that Denver's biggest scourge has become violence, not property crime. After several highly publicized killings last summer, many involving children and other innocent victims, Webb ordered a review of the program. Administration officials determined that Neighborhood Watch had faltered in many sections of town--particularly in areas populated by minorities and the poor, where violent crime was the worst.
"There were some neighborhoods where it really wasn't working at all," says Lawrence Borom, executive director of HRCR.
Borom points to several reasons for the failure. An "adversarial relationship" with the police kept many residents from participating in the program, he says. Others feared retribution for cooperating with authorities. And many residents were renters, rather than less-transient homeowners, which made the 75 percent participation rule almost impossibly high.
Webb directed HRCR to hire the four coordinators, who have been going door to door trying to convince residents that Neighborhood Watch is worthwhile. Assisting the coordinators have been eight young people from the federally funded Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA) program. According to John McBride, director of the mayor's Commission on Youth, HRCR and VISTA have helped organize 650 city blocks since Neighborhood Watch expanded last year.
"We do the outreach and bring the police in once the outreach is done," Borom says. "We've got a partnership where each partner brings what it does best to the table."
There have been complaints. Manager of Public Safety Butch Montoya acknowledges that in police districts three and four, which encompass all of south Denver, "coordination and communication" difficulties have arisen between the police and the HRCR neighborhood organizers. But he expects them to be ironed out soon. "In a program that's citywide like this, you're going to have some problems," Montoya says.
Others aren't so sure. Jan Belle of the SouthWest Improvement Council says the HRCR staffers have been "secretive, not trusting and unprofessional" in their dealings with her. One, she says, taped a meeting without Belle's consent; Belle found out when the recorder fell from the staffer's purse.
"It doesn't make any sense to have somebody doing police-type work but not work for the police department," Belle says. "Why create a new wheel that's already been invented?"
Councilman Ted Hackworth, a frequent Webb critic, raises another concern: that the HRCR coordinators will be used for political purposes rather than to combat crime. Hackworth believes the HRCR workers are telling residents that "Mayor Wellington Webb is helping them," rather than promoting closer ties with the police department. "I don't think that's legitimate at all," Hackworth says.
Administration officials, meanwhile, say the program is working well in the northern half of the city and that they expect to overcome problems in south Denver soon. The $120,000 to be appropriated for the HRCR's portion of the program would be spent by the end of the year, Borom says, but he hopes the administration can find the money to fund it permanently.
"We want to organize every block in the city," Borom says. "We think it's a worthwhile program, and we hope it's continued.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Westword's biggest stories.