Armed with two-way radios, clipboards, fliers and watchful eyes, they set out for the day. This isn’t something they are paid to do. They don’t wear badges, and they don’t carry guns. They are the members of the new Marcy-Holmes Citizen Patrol, a group of neighborhood residents who want to improve the safety of their neighborhood.
The three-week-old patrol is made up of about 20 volunteers. Most have other jobs and obligations. Many have lived in the neighborhood for years. And all are concerned about the demise of the area they call home.
Tom Steinmetz, who helped organize the patrol, said living in a neighborhood with as many rental properties as Marcy-Holmes has, residents were used to loud parties and car break-ins. But last fall, people began to notice a change.
“A lot more people were concerned that there was more drug dealing, assaults, robberies and break-ins in the neighborhood,” he said.
The citizen patrol is just what it sounds like — a group of citizens. They do not possess any authority to arrest or give citations, and they don’t intend to interfere with police business, volunteer Eric Nauman said.
“We’re not trying to be vigilantes, and we’re not trying to take the law into our own hands,” he said. “We want to create a record and assist the police in doing their job.”
Valerie Wurster, police inspector for the 2nd Precinct, said that while these groups can be beneficial, citizens have to be aware of their limits.
“I think that it’s very important that they have some understanding of the limitations about what they can do without complicating what law enforcement does,” she said.
Wurster said the precinct might work with the city attorney’s office to train citizen patrols to ensure they don’t get into unsafe situations.
At a neighborhood safety meeting in April, residents decided to start a patrol to help combat crime, said Tom Lincoln, a board member on the neighborhood organization’s Safety and Livability Committee.
The first patrol was June 9 and had about 20 volunteers throughout the weekend.
On a patrol day the volunteers meet at Dunn Bros. Coffee on University Avenue Southeast. They spend about 10 minutes discussing details from previous patrol shifts and decide the route for the day, including any specific areas they want to check.
The area they said they are most concerned about is in the 16-block area from Eighth Street and Eighth Avenue Southeast to Fourth Street and Fourth Avenue Southeast.
During one patrol, Nauman passed out fliers to neighbors explaining the purpose of the patrol as well as how residents can help.
Getting residents to realize they can help reduce crime is an important aspect of the patrol, Lincoln said.
“We want to make people aware of the power of calling 911,” he said.
One afternoon, the group paused to observe the apartment of someone it believed to be a drug dealer. They sat on the stoop of a nearby apartment and watched as the man stuck his head out his broken window at the sound of approaching visitors.
A man leaving the apartment appeared to avoid the patrol.
“If they were doing that, we’re having some effect,” Nauman said.
During one patrol, volunteer Marnie Loven-Bell picked up trash while Nauman noted graffiti and broken windows. During another patrol, volunteer Larry Prinds took notes on housing code violations on his personal digital assistant.
At the end of the weekend, all noted violations are compiled for one volunteer to call in to 311, the city’s information line.
Notes about what the patrollers think is suspicious activity, problem properties or important incidents are put on the group’s blog, marcyholmes.blogspot.com, to help identify patterns.
The group still is trying to figure out the best times to patrol, the number of volunteers needed and extra supplies that might be useful. Until those aspects are perfected, they continue to be a watchful eye on the neighborhood.
“Just being out and being visual is sometimes the best thing you can do,” Steinmetz said. “That’s a good deterrent in and of itself.”