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Nighttime in the North and East

on October 7, 2010

David Herrera, 26, caught sight of them on 23rd Street and thought they had been sentenced to community service. Andrea Monticalvo—a 26-year-old student and nanny—saw them and burst out her screen door on Lincoln Avenue to ask if they were searching for a missing child. Two teenagers outside Burg Park at 30th and Clinton assumed they were part of a construction team.

They were all wrong. The eight people carrying flashlights and wearing reflective vests are North and East residents themselves. A little more than a year ago, they formed a neighborhood patrol to take a more proactive role in public safety. By the year’s end, the city presented them with the Crime Prevention Group of the Year award.

Jamar Collier, 23, was surprised when the neighborhood patrol greeted him when getting out of his car. "Honestly, I didn't know what to think," he said. But he's glad they are out here and hopes they stay safe. (Photo by Emily Bender)

It’s all about community building said Ellen Seskin, a 56-year-old member of the patrol. “The idea is to encourage people to talk to their neighbors, to encourage people to be aware of what’s going on and not to be afraid to call the police,” she said.

At least once a week about six to ten members assemble at Burg Park where they pinpoint trouble spots in the neighborhood and plan out a route for the night’s patrol. Last Wednesday night they proposed walking to Wilson Avenue, where they’ve spotted homeless encampments; to Grant Elementary School, where graffiti and litter have been problems; and past several vacant houses peppered throughout the neighborhood.

After some deliberating, the group settled on a loop that would include parts of 23rd Street where prostitutes and pimps are known to work.

Members of the patrol joked with one another and made small talk as they started west. Shortly after, Felix Hunziker, a founding member of the group, stopped to slip a flyer under the windshield wiper of a white Buick blocking the sidewalk along Civic Center Street. A few blocks later he hung a city flyer on the front door of a home where weeds and grass nearly reached his knees.

When they find a car blocking the sidewalk or parked on the lawn, or spot a grossly unkempt yard, they leave a city flyer to warn the vehicle or homeowner for violating municipal code. After the patrol, one member sends a log of the night’s infractions to police and city code enforcement.

Felix Hunziker credits the success of the North and East neighborhood patrol to the shared vision and dedication of all its members. (Photo by Emily Bender)

“It’s not a ticket,” said Hunziker, who was appointed to the city’s civilian-led police commission last February. It’s a friendly reminder about “things that invite criminal activity. If the place is looking abandoned or neglected it starts to invite other problems,” Hunziker said.

Hunziker and a few other North and East residents formed the patrol last year in June after the neighborhood was rocked by a string of incidents. “There was a rash of home invasions and burglaries going on, and to cap it all off there was the murder of Eddie Sisneros,” said Hunziker.

Euvaldo Sisneros, 79, was brutally beaten while taking his afternoon walk on June 16 last year. He later died from injuries sustained during the attack. “It was the last straw,” said Hunziker. He realized he was not alone in his outrage and sense of urgency when he connected with community members on the neighborhood’s Yahoo forum. Together, they set up a walking patrol based on the model of their neighbors to the north who scout the area around Rheem Avenue.

At first, members were nervous and didn’t know what to expect. But more than a year later the group is comfortable and feels secure in their numbers.

After walking several dimly lit blocks, the patrol reached 23rd Street and headed north. They greeted curious onlookers enthusiastically. “Hi. We’re part of the neighborhood patrol. Let me give you one of our flyers.”

Moving up 23rd, group members walked passed a parking lot and waved and said hi to a young man with a buzz cut and tattoos running up his arms.

“How you know me?” he asked with a slightly menacing look.

David Herrera mistook the neighborhood patrol members for people, "in trouble." (Photo by Emily Bender)

“We don’t know you, we’re just saying hi,” responded Rebecca Auerbach, a 31-year-old land surveyor and member of the patrol.

After hearing what the group was about, the young man, David Herrera, warmed up a bit. “It’s all good. You guys are doing something for the community,” he said. “It looks cool, but it seems like I’d be the type of person you’d call the cops on.”

“No. We’re not calling the cops on anybody unless they are doing something wrong,” said Ellen Seskin. “Are you doing something wrong?” she asked.

David shook his head and said he’s been staying out of trouble. He said he works as a safety attendant at the Chevron refinery.

“Well, then you’re somebody that we would really love to have with us,” said Seskin before inviting Herrera to join their next patrol.

“They’re doing more than just preventing crime,” said Lt. Mark Gagan, spokesman for the police department. “They’re building a sense of community.” Lt. Gagan receives weekly reports from the patrol and said their model can and should be replicated in other neighborhoods. “Crime, really can only occur in places where there is apathy,” he said. “With the North and East we see the opposite. We see an enthusiasm for wanting to make a difference, and it does make a difference.”

Hunziker also believes the patrol model could be replicated in the city’s other neighborhoods. But in neighborhoods where there is more violence, he said people might not be as willing to put themselves out front. He suggests they start small and grow with time. Ultimately, Hunzkier says, “It’s up to the residents and it’s all about taking back what’s yours.”

* To learn more about the North and East Neighborhood Patrol or to find out how to start your own neighborhood patrol, check out the North and East patrol’s website.

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