An outraged citizenry targets crime
Letter-writing campaign warns druggies: “You are being watched”

Motorists cruising areas of Pontiac, Mich., known for drug-dealing and prostitution will soon receive warnings from police, in the form of a letter alerting the vehicles’ owners that the car was spotted in a known crime area and warning them that the vehicle could be seized if its driver is caught committing a crime.

Sgt. Mark Bennett of the Pontiac Police Department’s Special Operations Division, who oversees the Crime Area Target Team that is spearheading the effort, told Law Enforcement News that final touches are being put on the letters, which he expects will be sent beginning Dec. 1.

The Oakland (Mich.) Press reported recently that four form letters have been drawn up. One, which will be distributed anonymously by citizens to suspected drug dealers, reads: “You are being watched. We know what you are doing. We watch you all the time and we know what you do and when you do it. We will not stand for this in our neighborhood. Get out! Get out! Get out!”

According to the newspaper, other letters will be targeted at landlords who knowingly rent their properties to criminals, and at suspected “johns,” warning them of the possibility of contracting sexually transmitted diseases from prostitutes.

The letters, which will be signed by crime-prevention Officer Bill Wells, will be sent to the registered owners of vehicles seen in the target areas, and extra care has been taken to avoid accusations of criminal activity against owners, Sergeant Bennett said. “If it’s a situation where the owner is ignorant of the fact, we’re hoping that [the letter] will persuade them to keep that vehicle from being used for that purpose again.”

Police have also taken submitted the letters to the city’s attorneys to ward against possible lawsuits by civil-liberties groups, some of which have already criticized the effort.

 “There are probably ways to accomplish what the police want without this intimidation factor,” Wendy Joyrich, chairwoman of the Oakland County American Civil Liberties Union, told The Press. “These letters should not be intimidating in nature and shouldn’t target specific people. It’s an admirable goal, but there are other ways, and I think we find it very disturbing.”

But Bennett downplayed the group’s concerns. “Our intent is to corroborate the sighting with as many other facts as we can so as not to cause any undue embarrassment to an innocent party,” the sergeant said. “I will just tell you that when the program begins in earnest and letters are being sent out, guidelines will be in place to keep that from happening…. More than anything else, we view this as a service to the owner of the car to make sure he doesn’t suffer a loss at the hands of somebody else.”

The City Attorney’s Office has reviewed the letters, added Bennett, “and they’re comfortable with the way they’re worded. In fact, they were present when the letters were designed to really make sure they were acceptable.”

Neighborhood groups are instrumental in the effort, which he characterized as an outgrowth of the agency’s community policing program. “We have a network of neighborhood-watch groups who give us information about problems occurring in their neighborhoods,” he said.

Information also will be gleaned from observations by patrol officers and members of the CAT team, he added.


Floridians stage noisy nighttime marches to take back their streets

Their numbers have dwindled of late, but a group of Boynton Beach, Fla., residents are spending some of their weekend nights conducting noisy, high-profile protests against drug dealers.

Armed with megaphones and chanting anti-drug slogans such as “Up with hope, down with dope,” the  marchers surround suspected dealers in an “in-your-face” effort to rid their neighborhoods of the drug scourge.

The number of participants has decreased in recent months, said Boynton Beach police spokesman Jim Culver, who coordinates the effort and accompanies participants during their strolls through drug-infested sections of the Atlantic coast city, which has a population of about 50,000.

The marches are part of a “take back the streets” strategy developed by Herman Wrice, an anti-drug crusader who contends that the best way to rid neighborhoods of drug dealers is for residents to confront them head-on. Wrice told the New York Times recently that he has trained “street warriors” in 350 communities since 1987.

Wrice serves as a technical assistant in a Justice Department-sponsored program to help neighborhoods fight crime. Chris Rizzuto, DoJ’s deputy director for Congressional and public affairs, said the department has not done a “rigorous evaluation” of how effective the approach is. “Some police departments like what he does and some say it doesn’t have a lasting effect,” he told The Times.

Wrice, whom LEN was unable to reach for comment, is currently spreading his gospel of grass-roots resistance to the drug trade throughout Florida, said Culver. Similar efforts have been launched recently in Pompano Beach, Key West, Tampa, Orlando and Fort Myers.

Police have varying views about the marches’ effectiveness, but most agree the efforts help forge closer ties between police and residents, who often provide useful information about drug trafficking and other criminal activity. “Do they ever stop selling drugs? Probably not. But they’re not going to do it here,” said Pompano Beach police Capt. Dan Murray, who supports the effort.

“I’ve been here for eight years and I had never seen people in this community actively page police officers and really give them good information,” added Boynton Beach police Sgt. Frank Briganti.

The number of marchers in Boynton Beach has fluctuated since the effort began in July 1995, ranging from five to over 100, said Culver. “It’s been somewhat effective, but there’s still a lot of room for improvement,” he said. “But there have been arrests as a result of our going out in the past.”

Marchers, clad in distinctive yellow hats and T-shirts, abide by strict rules set up by Wrice, which include sticking to the chants and not engaging in personal diatribes against suspected buyers and dealers, Culver said. They are accompanied by as many as eight police officers to ward off possible violence from those they encounter, Culver added.

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Published in Law Enforcement News
Nov. 30, 1996.
© 1996, LEN Inc.