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Citizen patrols: residents fighting crime in St. Louis neighborhoods

(via Wikimedia Commons/J. Pelkonen)


St. Louis has been labeled “the most dangerous city in America.” Whether or not that’s actually true depends on who you talk to. But, one thing is for sure: many city residents are fed-up with the high crime rate that has burdened many neighborhoods for decades. Some have stopped blaming the police, instead working with them to address the problem.

St. Louis Public Radio’s Julie Bierach reports on one man’s crime fighting model that has the city’s top law enforcers singing his praise.

"The police don't live here, we do."

To say Michael Petetit’s three-story Victorian style-home in Lafayette Square is “beautiful” is an understatement. He and his wife Kathy not only live here, but they also operate a bed-and-breakfast. It’s no wonder that they became fed up with the growing crime rate in the historic neighborhood. So, in 2009, when the neighborhood had a series of hold ups and pistol whippings, Petetit decided to do something about it.

“And we had a home invasion as well that brought the circuit attorney here," Petetit said."And 200 residents from the neighborhood came to a meeting. And, as typical, they all started pointing their finger at police and saying ‘what are you going to do?’”

And Petetit thought “the police don’t live here, we do.  So, what can we do as citizens, in conjunction with the police to fight crime?" He reached out to the district’s police captain and got permission to organize a citizen patrol.

“And we started going out as pairs, non-confrontational, non-engaging, just eyes on the street looking at our neighborhood,” Petetit said.

And that was the beginning of Petetit’s neighborhood ownership model, which, over the course of a year grew into what is essentially a super neighborhood watch program.

The Citizen Patrol

Here’s how it works:

  • Residents are trained by the police to go on regular patrols;
  • They report crimes and quality of life issues, like burned out street lights and abandoned vehicles;
  • They go to court to support victims and work with the circuit attorney’s office to get neighborhood orders of protection;
  • And, they write impact letters to judges.

So far, it’s working. And not just because Petetit says so. Police Chief Dan Isom and Circuit Attorney Jennifer Joyce are praising the model’s success.

“It’s a wonderful model that gives neighborhoods and residents a sense of responsibility and ownership in keeping their communities safe,” Isom said.

Joyce said she thinks it's a fantastic concept.

"There is just no way that police and prosecutors working alone can accomplish a fraction of what citizens can accomplish here,” Joyce said.

Getting results

Since Petetit started patrols at the end of 2009, he says Lafayette Square has gone from the 27th safest neighborhood in the city, to the 9th.  Dutchtown was the second neighborhood to adopt the model and has also seen a reduction in crime, according to Police Officer Keith Novara, the liaison officer assigned to the neighborhood.

“It was actually the highest crime rate in the city, when I took it on - it’s drastically down,” Novara said.

As part of the model, the St. Louis Police Department assigns an officer to the neighborhood if residents agree to fund a substation by providing a place for the officer to work, a computer, and a phone line. That way the officer never has to leave and can form a relationship with residents.

Novara has been in Dutchtown since February and has citizen patrols going out every night. He says residents aren’t being vigilantes. They’re just an extra set of eyes and ears for the police.

“So, if you see a crime occurring, you stop, you stay back, you call the police, you give them the descriptions of the subjects committing the crime or whatever it is and it seems to be really, really working well for us,” Novara said.

"We have to stay and fight."

Rodney Edwards is an EMT with the Northeast Ambulance and Fire Protection District. He lives in The Ville, a neighborhood that adopted the model a few months ago. He’s taking me and Petetit on a daytime patrol. He first calls the police department to let them know he’s about to go out.

Edwards says The Ville is a dangerous neighborhood. It’s riddled with drug sales, prostitutes, burglars and brick thieves. Edwards says he and his fiancé have invested a lot of money in their home and know they wouldn’t get what its worth if they sold.

“So, we have to stay and fight," Edwards said. "We have to lock down, we have to batten down the hatches and get ready for a battle.”

Edwards drives slowly through the streets of The Ville. He and Petetit peer out the window looking for anything out of the ordinary to report to police.

“We’re looking for drug activity, we're looking for possible break-ins, we’re looking for things that don’t look normal," Edwards said."A car parked in the alley with three guys sitting in it, that’s not normal.”

As we drive down a street full of vacant buildings Edwards and Petitit think they caught a brick thief red handed and call the police.

About 8 minutes later a police officer arrives. Petetit says if they hadn’t been on patrol no one would have even noticed, much less, reported the alleged brick thieves. Edwards says it’s these subtle crimes that bring down home values and they’re determined to stop it.

“This is grassroots, this is resident-based and we handle it accordingly," Edwards said. "We cannot wait on our elected officials to decide that they feel like getting involved with us. People come to us because all of their hope is gone.”

Sixteen neighborhoods have adopted the model in hopes of trying to help police bring down the crime rate. After two years of the model in Lafayette Square, Petetit says residents aren’t afraid to jog or walk around the park. And he says when customers call about his bed-and-breakfast and ask if the neighborhood is safe, he can honestly say that it is.

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