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Taking Ownership: Building Safer Neighborhoods Through a Stronger Community Presence

Scott Harvey
Mary Clapper (left) and her daughter, Debbie Sterling inside their home in Woodland Heights. The two have been CAP volunteers since 2014.

On a bitterly cold, overcast December afternoon, Debbie Sterling points out a vacant lot at the corner of Kearney Street and Fort Avenue in Springfield’s Zone 1. The home that once stood here, she says, used to be a hotbed for criminal activity. In her neighborhood of Woodland Heights, among the biggest crime concerns, says Sterling, is drugs.

“You see a lot of stop-and-go traffic at houses or you’ll see people sitting out in cars in front of certain houses. As soon as they see you they take off,” she says.

Credit Scott Harvey / KSMU
A now vacant lot at Kearney and Fort that Sterling says used to be a hotbed for criminal activity.

I’ve accompanied Sterling and her mother, Mary Clapper, on a drive through the neighborhood. On the side of Sterling’s car she’s placed a large white magnet that in blue letters reads Citizens Alert Patrol (CAP). In this volunteer program, residents patrol the area in an effort to reduce crime, promote a safer community and improve the quality of life. It started as a 3-month pilot study in 2014. While not as big as it once was, Sterling and Clapper are among the roughly dozen active volunteers today.

“When you have people out driving in the neighborhood and people know there’s people watching them, it tends to run that element of crime out of the neighborhood,” says Sterling.

Clapper, adds, “All we do is report and record, and then send it into the PAR (Police Area Representative) officers and they decide what to do with it.”

There are roughly 1,700 homes in Woodland Heights, a residential neighborhood bordered by Kearney Street to the north, the railroad tracks to the south, and west to east from Kansas Expressway to Washington Ave. Multiple times a week Sterling and Clapper drive up and down these streets. They’ll look for activity that appears suspicious, vacant homes which may attract squatters, and poor or deteriorating structures that could be become safety hazards. Sterling drives; her mother logs their observations. 

“Like this where you see they’ve got all the wood and stuff [windows boarded up] on there… We’ll note it on our file and then we’ll keep watching it to seeing if they’re rebuilding it, or if they’re physically tearing it down or if just looks like somebody’s broken in there and now they’re living there,” says Sterling.

Each log entry, known as a Daily Activity Report (D.A.R), is passed along to the Springfield Police Department.

The CAP program is not a creation of Springfield’s recently launched Zone Blitz; an effort to improve the lives of citizens in the city’s northwest quadrant. But it is an initiative the Blitz points to as a community betterment tool. In fact, it’s among five public safety projects either in-progress, completed or in the planning phases.

“It’s one of those deals where we’re trying to get our neighborhood associations involved in assisting us in reporting crime by patrolling the neighborhoods that they live in,” says Cpt. Greg Higdon, SPD’s division commander in the Uniform Operations Bureau.

Citizens Alert Patrol
Credit Scott Harvey / KSMU
Citizens Alert Patrol magnet Sterling placings on her car before going on drivers through the neighborhood.

He says it’s difficult to measure the effectiveness of D.A.R.s produced by CAP volunteers with the rate at which crimes are solved.

“But what we do like is the fact that these DARs that come in, if there is information that can be gleaned from them that can then be assigned to the PARs and stuff. That’s what we’re doing.”

Higdon adds, “Maybe something we didn’t realize was an issue or we didn’t have the time to recognize at that specific moment, a CAP volunteer can say, ‘Hey, I do think this is a problem and I do think we need to focus on this.’ Then that’s when the PAR gets involved and that’s when maybe assist in developing a long-term solution to that.”

Higdon admits that participation numbers are down since the CAP program got started two years ago. But it’s the department’s hope, he says, to recruit more participants in 2017 throughout Woodland Heights as well expand to other neighborhoods.

Block Watch, a scaled-down version of the Neighborhood Watch program, is another Blitz initiative being encouraged. But it’s more than just volunteer patrolling. Last fall, the Springfield Police Department began increasing its presence in Zone 1 through a series of Patrol Deployment Plans. This assigns extra patrol squads to the area, as time permits.

“A lot of focus has been on auto theft, car break-ins; things of that nature. A lot of things that hit us pretty hard in urban areas” says Higdon.”

Uniform Crime Report data shows more violent and property crimes occur in Zone 1 than in Springfield’s other districts. The police department says under the plan, extra squads tracked 93 hours in Zone 1 in September (in addition to normal Zone 1 patrols), and another 42 hours in August.

Higdon says measuring the plan’s success is “very cyclic in nature.”

“Sometimes you have more stolen vehicles, other times you don’t. Is it because we’re in those areas? I’d like to think so.”

He adds that while patrols in one area may reduce crime, criminal activity could be stronger elsewhere.

“Are you displacing that [crime]to some degree? Probably so sometimes. But I do think we’re having an effect in the hundreds of hours that we’ve spent focusing on the Zone Blitz initiative.”

The deployment plans actually started before the official launch of Zone Blitz, but after the city had conducted a series of listening sessions that gauged citizen concerns.

Jennifer Brizendine lives with her husband and three children near Woodland Heights’ western boundary. She’s happy to see more neighborhood cleanup projects. Her family is the beneficiary of a city-assisted roof repair, and Habitat for Humanity helped turn their porch into a third bedroom to accommodate their growing family.

“Two bedrooms was rough. With three it’s helped quite a bit,” she said.

Brizendine calls her neighborhood homey, but would like to see police officers respond quicker to reported incidents and is in favor of a neighborhood watch. She likes the idea of the CAP program, but I needed to explain it first, because she wasn’t familiar. That led to a discussion on community communication.

“What if we want to help? We can’t help if we don’t know.”

Brizendine admits the line of communication works both ways. And there are many efforts to improve connectivity for north siders. aims to empower, engage and uplift Zone 1 neighborhoods by sharing news within its community. The site went live about a month ago, according to Springfield’s Assistant Director of Public Information Melissa Haase, who helps edit the submitted content. In January, the service will distribute 30,000 hard copies to Zone 1 residents, with thousands available for pickup throughout other parts of town. The publication will continue quarterly for those that subscribe to the free service. In addition to stories on neighborhood people, events and businesses, guest columns will be delivered by city officials, including law enforcement.

Rita Silic
Credit Scott Harvey / KSMU
CAP volunteer and Woodland Heights resident Rita Silic.

To that end, another public safety project focuses on improving communication through social media. That includes the police department sharing information via Twitter and Facebook that is unique to neighborhoods, and promoting tools for residents to connect like

This all gets back to hopes of a stronger community presence. A major champion of that goal is Rita Silic, another Woodland Heights resident and CAP volunteer. She says just getting people to talk about what they observe is key in strengthening the community.

“Even if they don’t become a CAP member, even if they don’t become a Block Watch person, they are at least aware of what’s going on. And that is a subtle but huge help within the neighborhoods.”

It’s because people take ownership, says Silic.

“When I go out into the community, it’s as if my house is now my bedroom, my community is my living room; and when I can take that as ownership then I behave that way - the way I would in my own home and in my own living room; what I will tolerate, what I won’t tolerate. And that’s what you wanna teach everybody else.”

Debbie Sterling, the other CAP member we met earlier, she tells me citizens are “patiently waiting” for the Zone Blitz to gain momentum. And as it happens, it may encourage more volunteers.

“When you see things changing, when you see things getting cleaned up, then it makes a huge difference because as far as you know you can actually accomplish something even with a little bit of time. So everybody can do something,” says Sterling.

For others, identifying tangible evidence of Zone Blitz success may take time. The 18-month initiative began in July, and more public safety plans are on the way. By the time it’s completed, some 60 projects covering close to a dozen focus areas will be implemented.

Follow Scott Harvey on Twitter: @scottksmu