Photographer Peter Haley and I spent a few hours last night patrolling with the Larchmont Safe Streets organization. Click below for a taste of what it was like:
The prostitute is wearing jean shorts and a black jacket. As Kathy Martin’s minivan rolls down Pacific Avenue, its passengers stare at the woman. The prostitute stares back. As it rolls north on Pacific Avenue in Tacoma, she rolls her eyes and takes a deep drag from her cigarette.
"She’s a regular," said Mark Smith, a co-group leader of the Larchmont Safe Streets neighborhood group. "We know her. We know a lot of them."
And the prostitutes know the Larchmont Safe Streets neighborhood group. So do other regular troublemakers: pimps, johns, drug dealers and gangbangers. The residents formed the neighborhood patrol so they criminals knew they were there to push them away.
Trouble isn’t hard to find. The three residents on patrol this night – Kathy Martin, Marion Bass and Mark Smith – can spot crime like a seasoned beat cop. Martin points out drug houses and names the slumlord who owns it. They recognize the regular prostitutes who work Pacific Avenue. Smith decodes graffiti and can pinpoint it to certain gangs that operate in the South End and East Side. They patrol through the back corners of parking lots where prostitutes take their customers or tweakers score their fix.
The neighborhood patrol, which allows neighbors to collaborate with police on prevention of low-level crime, has become a robust operation in neighborhoods in Tacoma. Residents drive the streets of their neighborhood and report to police what they see.
Many are graduates of the Safe Streets Neighborhood Patrol Academy; the grassroots crime-fighting organization has plans to expand the program all across the area.
They’re all volunteers. They drive their own cars and don’t receive gas reimbursement.
"It’s our way of donating our time and money to keep our neighborhood safe," Smith said.
About 30 minutes after Martin’s van first rolls down Pacific Avenue, the prostitutes disappear.
"They talk to each other," Smith said. "Once we’ve been spotted watching them, they know the cops aren’t far behind."
Soon, though, they return. Many scowl or roll their eyes when Martin’s minivan creeps by. They later spot one of the prostitutes entering a room in a seedy motel. That means they know where she’s staying – or at least doing business – and they make a note to contact their community liaison officer in the morning.
But that’s just one. Back on Pacific Avenue, six others are still looking for johns, and it’s more than an hour before sunset.
The patrol records where they’re standing, where they’re staying and with whom they’re doing businesses. Many start to duck into doorways when they see the van approaching. They pop back out when it passes.
"It’s like herding cats sometimes," Smith said.
"No," Martin counters, "it’s like herding cockroaches."
Almost every night for the past year, they’ve patrolled the streets and made themselves visible to the pimps, prostitutes and drug dealers who congregate on Pacific Avenue. The crime on Pacific Avenue inevitably seeps into their nearby residential neighborhood, Martin said, so they’re trying to clean it up before it appears on their streets.
But that’s not always easy. Martin, Smith and Bass point out drug houses and gang tags – and places where the houses have been shuttered or torn down and the graffiti has been painted over.
Even though they feel they’re winning the battle against crime in Larchmont, some get personal reminders. Earlier this week, someone jumped the fence in front of Martin’s house and stole two bicycles.
She installed an alarm system and motion-sensitive floodlights. And her resolve to patrol that night seemed strengthened.
"We make sure they know we’re here," she said. "I don’t care where they go. They just can’t stay in this area."