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October 21, 1994  |JUDY PASTERNAK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

 

The dangers of direct action were already apparent to most neighbors, thanks to citizen marches on drug houses organized by Khatib A. F. Waheed, director of Caring Communities Programs. Waheed, with his close-trimmed beard, suspenders and tie, cut a familiar figure throughout Walnut Park because of his work to strengthen families, from school tutoring to substance abuse counseling.

 

"You sell drugs! You must go!" Waheed's protesters, anywhere from five to a dozen, chant before each target home on alternate Friday nights.

The voices, however, belong to outsiders, usually clergy or college students. This is because of a shoot 'em-up in early 1991 that sent ammunition slamming into three houses, all with school-age children in residence, on the same block of Beacon Street. Someone from each place had marched with Waheed. After the bullets flew, the locals stopped participating.

 

It was becoming clear that Neighborhood Watch alone offered no simple fix. Some thought that should have been obvious from the start. "Neighborhood Watch don't work," said Chris Carter, brother of Alderman Carter, between phone calls in the alderman's storefront district office. "There's no one in charge and no money involved."

 

Still, scholars say they understand why so many turned first to the Watch. They blame hype. "I think Neighborhood Watch was basically oversold in the '80s," said Dennis P. Rosenbaum, director of the Center for Research in Law and Justice at the University of Illinois-Chicago.

 

In the early 1980s, a Northwestern University team examined Watch organizing in four Chicago neighborhoods, all middle class but experiencing racial or economic transition. The researchers expected the experience to increase optimism about the communities, help residents get to know each other, make them feel safer and reduce actual crime. Most of their results showed the opposite happening. The siege mentality actually intensified.

 

When the scholars compared the Watch areas to citywide surveys, they found no evidence that block groups made a difference at all.

This method of community crime prevention, they concluded in a 1988 book about their observations, "fails for the most part to offer a workable or meaningful solution."

Those were fighting words back then. Rosenbaum, who was one of the professors involved, said he was harshly criticized for writings that questioned the Watch.

 

Practically every police and sheriff's department in the nation now has an officer who is supposed to help citizens form Watch groups. Forty of 70 programs financed through the Clinton Administration's Summer of Safety program included the organizing of Neighborhood Watch. Spinoff attempts are legion: Fleet Watch, Postal Watch, Harbor Watch.

At any given time, about a third of America is involved in Watch activities, said Cantrell of the sheriff's association. Most of that territory, she added, is middle class.

 

"Where you have a homogeneous community, where people have money invested," she said, "it's easier."

Yet even those chapters quite often fall apart, usually because participants get bored. The average life span, Cantrell said, is about two years. Indeed, a New Jersey policeman once estimated that 25% of the Watch signs in his town were mere shipwrecks, marking the spots where a block group went down.

 

That makes perfect sense to Matt A. Peskin, director of the National Assn. of Town Watch, based in Wynnewood, Pa., an affluent Philadelphia suburb. Peskin founded his organization in 1981 as a resource for block captains like himself who wanted to trade information.

"Watch groups can only do so much. They have quietly done a lot of what they were designed to do," he said. He believes that the Neighborhood Watch mission should be limited to preventing break-ins.

 

Ex-chief Ed Davis, for one, has higher ambitions for his brainchild. What he had in mind all along was a working partnership between police and the good people they protect, fighting illegal activity together, in communities of every class and color. "It was supposed to be universal," he said.

 

According to the Davis rules, citizens should be in constant touch with an officer they know. Police in turn are supposed to send suggestions based on what they hear up through the chain of command.

Those underpinnings disappeared in Los Angeles, he said, when he left the chief's post. They never showed up, he added, in most places that picked up the Watch theory after Davis "licensed" it to the sheriffs' organization in 1972. The reasons were various: from misunderstanding of the concept to resistance by officers who perceived the Watch as interference from civilians or a "lite" version of real police work.

 

The lofty goals, however, remained part of the conventional Watch wisdom. And, though there have been many success stories, the separation of the means from the ends also led to problems.

 

Now, he has company. "Neighborhood Watch is kind of passé," said Bonnie Bucqueroux, associate director of the National Center for Community Policing at Michigan State University.

 

As violent crime spreads beyond pockets in large cities to middle-sized towns and suburbia, the lessons being learned in the Walnut Parks of America can be applied to other types of areas as well.

"The problem is changing," said Lin Squires, a founder of Mad About Rising Crime in the San Fernando Valley. Where Squires lives, in Chatsworth, traditional Neighborhood Watch is "an excellent piece of the puzzle," she said. "But it's limited. We need more."

 

While she belongs to a Watch on her block, Mad About Rising Crime also sponsors softball leagues at local parks and offers counseling to parents and teens with troubled relationships. "Its focus," she said, "is on trying to create crime-resistant neighborhoods, to look at what caused this drastic situation and change that."

 

Late last year, Calvin Bailey vowed to try the Watch again. With the police stepping up their community effort, there was more backup around, he told himself, and it could work.

In January, he stopped at each of his block's 21 houses, even the seven where he knew that narcotics dealers were at work. He explained his intentions.

 

This time, the meetings would be held in public buildings, not in private homes. But it wasn't enough of a change. On the first official evening of the new, improved Watch, in the community room at Walbridge Elementary School, Bailey sat by himself for an hour before giving up.

 

For two months, no one came. By the third month, he had drawn only three people.

 

Bailey decided he needed a gimmick. He researched city programs and printed up a handbill advertising that the next Watch meeting would feature information about grass seeds and paint. Seventeen people--a record--showed up. "They thought that something was coming free," he said, chortling at the memory.

 

With that triumph, the old flow of threats resumed.

The messages were delivered, on the street or at the corner store, by people he knew slightly, by just their first name or their last.

 

"You better watch your back," warned Andre.

 

"Get home before it's dark," Mrs. Simmons said.

 

"They gonna get you. They know you snitching." This time it was Mike.

 

In the dark morning hours of April 20, Bailey woke smelling smoke. He made his way from his bedroom to the living room, which was on fire. He walked outside and saw a spine of flame flickering on the wall. Peering at its source on the roof, he remembers, he realized, "It's one of them cocktail bombs." Molotov's recipe: gasoline in a bottle, a rag for a wick.

 

Everyone escaped. Calvin and Denise; Calvin Jr., 15; Dana, 13; Devin, 4; Carlton, 2.

The fire gave off a vivid glow. The sirens wailed at ear-blasting level. Bailey noticed, however, that nobody on the block was looking out to see what had happened. "We report suspicious activity," indeed.

 

"After all I've done," he thought and for the first time, bitterness stirred.

 

"Get me the U-Haul," said his wife, Denise, half-hysterical. It was time to give up, to flee the house where they had spent the last 10 years. That night, lying beside her husband in a hotel near the airport, she sobbed for a very long time.

 

But in the morning, she said, "I'm staying." She didn't want to move.

Then came a brief, heartening period.

 

Without being asked, Khatib Waheed corralled some of his regular marchers for guard duty at the house. In pairs, they worked four-hour shifts.

 

After two days, one asked, "Khatib, man, how long we gotta do this?" But Waheed insisted that they continue. "This is a Waterloo," he said, "for this family and for us."

 

Bailey's employer donated a new roof. Another company installed gray carpeting and contributed linoleum for a new kitchen floor.

With all the scrutiny from the media and City Hall, drug activity stopped. And on April 28, the Baileys held a Neighborhood Watch meeting. Thirty-three people showed up.

 

Some, like Alderman Carter, were elected officials. Some were pastors. Amazingly, however, most were locals. They came from other blocks of Emerson and from Alcott, the next street over.

 

One was Robert Keys, 55 years old, tall and bespectacled. The crime had been getting to him. "I was thinking of just packing up and going," he said. "I figured I'm alone. What can I do? I'm one person."

The firebombing changed his mind. It was Calvin Bailey's turn to be an inspiration.

 

But recent Watch meetings have attracted only 10 people, and the peace is over.

Police are sure they know who pitched the firebomb onto Bailey's roof and also who commissioned and paid him with one or perhaps two $20 rocks of cocaine. But there's no prosecutable case; their witness is too scared to step forward.

 

For weeks now, every night at about 10 p.m., the shooting has started up on Emerson Street. The drug dealers are back on the job.

 

When Denise Bailey steps out on her porch to sweep up, she hears the comments: "She thinks she's too good to talk to anybody."

 

Rumors are spreading about Calvin, that he sold his share of narcotics himself in the past. And the No. 1 rule at the Baileys' house is that the children, for their own safety, must stay indoors.

 

Official Neighborhood Watch handbooks recommend that residents leave outside lights burning at night, and offer tips about locks and window bars. Ask block captains in Walnut Park what advice they would add and they come up with suggestions like these:

 

* Print two agendas, the real one and the censored backup prepared in case a stranger or someone obviously untrustworthy shows up. An alternative: the "meeting before the meeting." Forget the "phone tree." Be careful about who gets your number.

 

* Even though the police say they won't stop first at your house if you call in a complaint, they do it all the time. Then you've been fingered as the snitch. Don't phone 911 cold (your address will show up) unless it's a matter of life and death. Instead, contact someone in the department that you know.

 

* When the adults stop providing information (and they will when they get scared), buy a bunch of Freeze-Pops for the children, who will snack on your front stoop and fill you in on the latest goings-on.

 

* At the least, joining Neighborhood Watch means some of your neighbors will whisper that you're mean, self-righteous, or priggish, or all three. At worst, you could get hurt.

 

"God takes care of babies and fools," Maria Paschal said. "That's how I cope with fear."

 

 

 

Keeping an Eye on the Neighbors: In crime-infested areas, joining Neighborhood Watch groups can be a risky business. What's worse--fear of crime, or fear of the criminal's reprisal?  WAVE OF FEAR: America's Soaring Concern Over Crime. One of an occasional series.