Barry Saunders

It takes a community – and then some – to get a handle on crime

Alfred E. Neuman, the redheaded, gap-toothed Mad magazine mascot, is my go-to philosopher when it comes to what ails cities most: The problem with too many neighborhoods, he said, is not enough neighbors and too many hoods.

That’s why all neighbors should be members of a Community Watch program – so they can watch out for their community. “We’ve got to find a way to work with these parents whose children are committing these crimes,” Bruce Lightner, a Raleigh community activist and businessman, said.

“Most of them,” he said of the children raising hell in the streets, “are raised by single parents. ... Their children can’t read, fall behind in school and can’t find a job or a sense of purpose, and they resort to anti-social behavior. ... Let the word go forth from this meeting that the parents need to take more responsibility for their children. We can’t put it all on the Raleigh Police Department.”

“I will put all the weight on Raleigh police,” Sylvia Wiggins, executive director of Helping Hands Mission, responded.

While agreeing that parents need to be more involved with what their children are doing, Wiggins said she sees a nefarious plot behind crime in some neighborhoods, where aimless teens hang so thick on street corners “that you can hardly walk down the street.”

Wiggins and Lightner were among a dozen people who met Wednesday at the Roberts Park Center on Raleigh’s East Martin Street to seek, sometimes boisterously, solutions to the violence and other crimes that have some residents afraid to leave their homes after dark.

With downtown’s rapid growth, Wiggins said, developers are being forced to spread out, and they covet communities considered to be consumed by crime because it’s easier to cheaply take them over. Current residents are forced out, she said.

“This young boy who just got killed? I knew him. He used to come down to the park and play ball.”

She was referring to 13-year-old Keyshawn Tyrell Gregory, who was shot on Beauty Avenue last week. Police say he was sitting inside a car whose other occupants got into an argument with people standing outside. Someone in that group fired into the car and killed Keyshawn.

The cop I most fondly remember – next to the one who collared the retromingent skunk who broke into my house several years ago – was the one who snatched me by the collar and off my feet and screamed “What the $%@^&* is wrong with you?”

My buddies and I, younger at the time than Keyshawn, were playing in the streets of Washington, darting from behind cars, when I dashed in front of a D.C. patrol car that had to screech to avoid turning me into roadkill. That’s when the driver jumped out and angrily grabbed a handful of me. It’s hard to explain, but even then, I appreciated the fact that he cared enough to get that angry over my welfare.

Cynical friends to whom I’ve related that story insist that he just didn’t want to go through the hassle of filling out paperwork or cleaning me off the bumper of his squad car.

Regardless of why he did it, I’ve always known that cops are meant to be instruments of good in the community – not that all of them are.

Boy, I wish I could find that cop who cared enough to scare me when I was still impressionable enough to be scared.

So would a lot of the people at the meeting Wednesday. Most of them lamented that – too often – officers are seen as a hostile or occupying force, showing up only when something bad has happened.

“Instead of walking around downtown and making sure everything is alright, why not walk around on Beauty Avenue?” where Keyshawn was killed, Gene Alston of Martin Street Baptist Church asked Sgt. E.L. Woodard, the police representative at the meeting.

“When I was out there answering 9-1-1 calls, I didn’t have time to engage” socially with residents, Woodard said. “Now that I’m a community relations officer, I have more time” for that. He also said some police now ride bicycles to make it easier for them to see and be seen and to get to know residents.

“We don’t need to reinvent the wheel,” Diane Powell, founder of Justice Served NC Inc., said. She cited various organizations and churches – including hers, Revelation Missionary Baptist Church, which sponsors a monthly Coffee with Cops meeting – that try to offer alternatives to hanging on the street.

Daniel Coleman of the South Central Citizens Advisory Council, said, “This is an ongoing battle. Have we failed? Obviously, because we’re still meeting here” monthly.

Meeting isn’t necessarily a bad thing, Wiggins said, as the noon meeting wrapped up. “We don’t want to come back here again because of a homicide; we want to come back for a celebration.”

Making that happen, unfortunately, takes more than a dozen people.

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