Saturday, February 28, 2004

Retaking a neighborhood

By Kevin Aldridge
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Tom Eppens of the Madisonville Citizens on Patrol unit reads over a misdemeanor warrant sheet by the headlights of a police bus. He has been a member of the unit for three years.
Photos by MEGGAN BOOKER/The Cincinnati Enquirer

Jerry Markley passes out police scanners to patrol members before they take to the streets in the Madisonville neighborhood.

Jerry and Patricia Markley knew there would be risks when they started the Madisonville Citizens on Patrol unit six years ago.

The Markleys have been threatened by neighborhood crack cocaine dealers. Vandals have scratched their cars. Someone threw a rock through a van window. Eggs have been tossed at their house.

But such acts haven't deterred the Markleys from walking Madisonville's streets three, and sometimes four, nights a week with their neighbors.

"It's a part of trying to return your neighborhood back to normal," said Patricia Markley, 60. "You just keep going and you keep hoping things get better."

The Markleys are two of an estimated 700 Citizen on Patrol volunteers in Cincinnati's neighborhoods and parks. Citizens wear uniforms, carry police radios and report dangerous or suspicious activity to police officers. They are taught never to directly intervene.

In operation since 1997, Citizens on Patrol has become a valuable tool for the Cincinnati Police Department's emphasis on involving citizens in identifying neighborhood issues.

Officer Eric Franz, who coordinates the program, said police would like Citizens on Patrol in every neighborhood. He expects about 75 percent of neighborhoods to have units by 2005. Another training class begins today. "I've come full circle with this program because I was very much a disbeliever at first," Franz said.

"But by making citizens our partners, we are able to lower actual crime as well as the perception of crime."

Volunteers in Madisonville donate more than 7,000 hours a year. About 40 people - ranging in age from early 40s to late 80s - are members of the unit. The task is daunting: Serious crime in Madisonville was up slightly last year compared with 2002 and the neighborhood's 8,635 calls for service were the most in the police district.

Seasoned veterans

On a recent cold and blustery night, nine members of Madisonville's team gathered at police headquarters to begin their patrol. Volunteers, in custom caps and jackets, grabbed police radios and flashlights.

Some stuffed soda pop and snacks into a duffle bag. The Markleys even brought along a Ziploc bag filled with dog biscuits in case they are confronted by a vicious dog during their four-hour tour.

"We're seasoned veterans," joked Patricia Markley. "We prepare for all eventualities."

Volunteers load themselves into a Cincinnati police van and head for some of the neighborhood's crime hot spots.

Jerry Markley pulls the van in front of a busy drive-through store.

"If you watch the amount of traffic going through there, it's hard to believe they are doing that much business selling pop and potato chips," said Bob Mendlein, a member of the unit. "They are not selling Skittles."

About an hour and a half into their patrol, the unit encounters police. Police have stopped two young men in their car on Roe Street. They have run out of gas and have warrants for their arrest on minor charges. Volunteers Rand Richard and Tom Eppens help officers by pushing the disabled vehicle from the middle of the street.

"That's one of the kids we see out here all the time when we're doing patrols," Eppens said. "That's the thing about doing these patrols. You get to know the kids on the street and they get to know you, too."

Making a difference

John Eck, a criminal justice professor at the University of Cincinnati, said there have been few studies on the effectiveness of citizens on patrol programs.

"They can be very hard to maintain," Eck said. "People get excited about participating at first, and then as other things come into their lives they sort of drift away."

Citizens on Patrol volunteers in Madisonville believe they've made an impact on drug trafficking in their neighborhood, particularly at the intersection of Bramble and Whetsel avenues.

The intersection was well-known to residents as an open-air drug market where crack dealers could be found standing on the corners flagging down cars as early as 6 a.m. The area is starting to make a comeback with new businesses moving in, but police and volunteers have to remain vigilant to make sure the drugs stay out.

Patricia Markley said volunteers began taking license plate numbers of drug buyers and sometimes take pictures or video footage.

"They would come up and tell us to leave. That they owned this block," she recalled. "It was quite intimidating at first because we were babes in the woods.''

Eppens, 46, a member of the unit for three years, was horrified when someone called his teen-aged son and told him that "if your parents go out on patrol again they will get painted" (meaning shot to death). Eppens filed charges and the person was sentenced to 90 days in jail.

Eppens said he used to ignore crime problems in his neighborhood.

"I didn't want to see what was going on on those corners," he said. "I kept telling myself that this couldn't be going on in my community. But it was."

Eppens said he finally got concerned enough to join the group. Residents in other neighborhoods have to make the same choice.

Patricia Markley said it takes dedication to be a part of the program. But most of all it takes love, she said.

"That's the key. Do you really love your community or are you planning to move up and out into the suburbs?"


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