Partners In Crime

Last fall, a study named Oklahoma City ninth in the nation for violent crimes per capita, joined by the likes of Detroit, Baltimore and Houston – and crime rates in OKC have steadily lurched upward for the past several years.

Tulsa also has had its own share of dark deeds in recent months. In January, four women were found executed in the Fairmont Terrace Apartments near 61st Street and Peoria Avenue, sending a wave of horror rippling across the entire city. Tragically, the victims’ deaths were not the first to shock the Riverwood neighborhood; January’s slayings brought the total homicides in Fairmont Terrace alone to eight in two years.

But while certain neighborhoods and properties in both Oklahoma City and Tulsa have become bywords for violence, citizens, city officials and police are not standing idly by.

“Citizens have had all they can take of crime in their neighborhoods,” says Tulsa Police Department Major Jonathan Brooks, division commander for the Riverside district. “For so long, citizens thought, ‘Well, that’s not my neighborhood, so I don’t care,’ or, ‘That will never happen here.’ But now, Tulsans are concerned and making a difference by becoming involved.”

More Than Just Eyesores

Many say that properties like Fairmont Terrace have become beacons for crime in part because they are owned by out-of-state interests (in Fairmont Terrace’s case, California companies) that take little, if any, interest in direct management of the property as long as the rent checks keep flowing. In the past, tenant efforts to organize and interact with management in similar properties have come to little, and crime in these absentee-owner complexes, of which there are several in the Riverwood neighborhood, continues mostly unabated.

“A hands-on ownership would certainly help in housing complexes,” Brooks says. “More important than that is a hands-on management approach of the property. Accountability is key for policing efforts when actions need to be taken in complexes. If the owners or managers are absent, then the problems are often out-of-sight, out-of-mind. If they are there and involved, then they are dealing with the day-to-day problems that lead to poor quality-of-life issues before they become crime problems.”

One Oklahoma City complex, also owned by a California-based company, has earned its own sinister reputation. For years, the decrepit Lantana Apartments near Northwest 10th Street and Rockwell Avenue has been the site of multiple fires, code violations and drug activities. In 2008, pizza delivery driver Jeremy Moore was lured to the abandoned complex with a false order. He was then shot to death for $42.91 worth of food.  

Sadly, the Lantana is only one of several properties of its kind in Oklahoma City, all eyesores at best, tragedies waiting to happen at worst. According to The Oklahoman, seven housing complexes across the city have racked up more than 200 combined code violations, with owners owing more than $200,000 in fines and back taxes on the properties. The Lantana itself is slated to be sold at public auction by the city, although it is unclear if the property will be destroyed or if yet another attempt to “turn it around” will be undertaken by an out-of-state interest.

“It is true that Oklahoma City has an abandoned property problem,” says Jennifer Meckling, programs coordinator for the Neighborhood Alliance of Central Oklahoma. “Almost every neighborhood in urban Oklahoma City has at least one property that is abandoned and in disrepair. The effects on the surrounding properties are well-documented: It brings down housing values, creates safety hazards and is a great drain on city resources with higher-than-average police, fire and code-enforcement calls.” Meckling says that the city’s Planning Department is taking action and has hired a consultant to provide support and make recommendations to the City Council. “Resolution of this issue will require some changes in state legislation, and our council and city planning department are working diligently toward that.

 “Changes never make everyone happy,” Meckling continues, “but as citizens, we need to demand that the owners of these resource drains be held accountable for the tax dollars they cost each of us and give the city the power to follow through. I would encourage citizens to get involved in the process and make their concerns known. Check out upcoming council agendas at www.okc.gov and engage in dialogue with your city leaders.”

James Greiner is the city councilman for Ward 1, where Lantana Apartments is located. He agrees that abandoned properties such as Lantana have a deleterious effect on neighbors.

“I think stagnant and depreciating property values are the biggest way abandoned properties affect neighborhoods negatively,” Greiner says. “Abandoned properties usually create more abandoned properties because they cause people to not want to live in those neighborhoods. When people don’t want to live in your neighborhood, your house isn’t going to be worth as much as it could be. They also hurt the school district and the morale of the neighborhood.”

While abandoned, absentee-managed properties have been the sites of highly publicized violence as of late, Brooks says the problem of urban crime, in both Tulsa’s Riverwood area and the urban areas at large, runs deeper. “The crime rate in Riverwood is the culmination of several issues,” he says. “First, when you have a large concentration of people, the probability of crime goes up. Having numerous complexes in a small geographical area increases the population of not only of residents, but visitors as well.

“Second, unaddressed socio-economic issues give rise for more crime opportunities. When education, employment and self-improvement are not primary goals or options for citizens, then the disservice starts and quality-of-life degrades. Children and youth will only know what they are exposed to and substantial free time without direction often leads to mischief, which leads to contact with police. From experience, it is not always the residents that drive crime in Riverwood, but often it is the visitors. Some of the visitors come with criminal intent in mind and for the sole purpose to carry out their crimes. They prey on the residents of the area and take advantage of impressionable youth.”

“I think apathy and fear are two big components,” Meckling says of contributing factors to urban crime, “and a [neighborhood] association can counter both of those. At the Neighborhood Alliance, we like to say that living in a safe, beautiful and healthy neighborhood is a responsibility, not a right. We all have the responsibility to use the tools available to better our community. We can’t complain our way into a better neighborhood. We must take action.”

In neighborhoods across Oklahoma, citizens are doing just that.

Taking It Back Together

In an effort to take back their neighborhoods, many residents are forming alliances with city officials and police departments to combat crime with responsibility and community.

Prompted in response to the most recent slayings at Fairmont Terrace, members of the Tulsa City Council spearheaded the creation of the Tulsa Public Safety Intelligence Work Group, a committee dedicated to improving crime intelligence and citizen reporting in the city’s troubled neighborhoods. Among the recommendations of the group is to bring Tulsa CrimeStoppers – currently managed by an out-of-state firm – in-house and provide local witness protection options. Above all, the recommendations emphasize the importance of neighborhood tips and participation.

“Several councilors, including me, are looking at ways to completely reshape the 61st and Peoria area,” says District 8 City Councilor Phil Lakin. “The residents there don’t just need better living conditions; they need access to better social and medical services, grocery stores, transportation and physical activities (via the park that sits very near that intersection). Taking a holistic approach to improving this community will provide for far better results, compared to the Band-Aid application that has been and is typically applied.

“This Council doesn’t seem to be interested in a quick fix; rather, it’s focused on a long-term solution to markedly improving peoples’ lives.”

Brooks says there are several more recommendations forthcoming. “The recommendations alone will not lower crime,” he says, “but the commitment and follow-through will be pivotal in aiding in the reduction and prevention of crime. The police alone can only do so much in crime-fighting efforts. It will take a partnership of the police, the citizens, community leaders, homeowners, business owners and anyone else with a vested interest to have a true and long-lasting effect.

“Establishing long-lasting relationships in crime prevention, providing health and educational resources, and social enhancement opportunities will eventually lead to safer neighborhoods,” Brooks says.

In addition, he says that “Alert Neighbor programs are growing, and police are working much closer with neighborhood associations to prevent, deter and investigate crimes. TPD has worked with neighborhood associations by assisting in organizing Alert Neighbor programs, Citizen Patrol programs and through Tulsa CrimeStoppers. Police officers are also talking with the residents of their patrol area.”

“The Neighborhood Alliance has worked closely with the OCPD for many years,” says Meckling. “Among the tools we offer in partnership with the police are neighborhood-specific crime reports. We publish those reports on our website and also send out a postal mailing each month to the neighborhood contact listed with us. It’s important that neighborhoods keep their information with us up-to-date so that the police or city can contact the neighborhood with information that affects their area. We work hand-in-hand with the police community relations officers in bringing crime-watch skills to neighborhoods, and helping neighborhoods maintain an organization that can combat the undesirable factors in their neighborhood.”

The intersection of police, neighbor and city efforts recently played out with notable success in Norman, where a troubled property began to blight an entire neighborhood. 1207 Cruce Street had become a hangout for criminal suspects and drug abusers. Police had been called to the residence some 70 times and made 25 arrests. Families were afraid to allow their children to play outside, and at one point, someone had even been beaten unconscious outside the residence. Both neighbors and police had had enough. Working with the city council and code enforcement, they called upon a rarely-used ordinance to declare the property a nuisance. Under the ordinance, the water meter was removed and the house was declared unfit for human habitation for at least six months, allowing a window of time for the house to be improved and the undesirable element removed.

“The incidents related to 1207 Cruce are perfect examples of how the community, police and other city departments worked together to ensure a high quality of life would not be interrupted,” says City of Norman Police Chief Keith Humphrey. “The first positive thing is that citizens followed the first rule of community-oriented policing and contacted the police regarding concerns. Two of our officers who worked this area recognized that they were answering repeat calls to this location. The officers begin to work with the neighbors in this area, which I truly believe validated [that] we really wanted to partner. The officers then partnered with code enforcement because some of the incidents were not criminal.

“As you can see, communication on all levels was vital,” Humphrey continues. “I recently drove this area and personally observed kids playing in front yards and just more positive activity in the immediate area.”

Humphrey says that the Norman Police Department is at work on several community-oriented police initiatives, funded by the public safety sales tax passed by the city in 2008, including a Citizens’ Police Academy, teen-outreach programs and partnerships with local apartment complexes to implement the Crime Free Multi-Housing Program.

“Norman has become a large city and continues to grow,” Humphrey says. “Because of this, we are experiencing our share of crime like other cities in the nation. However, I truly believe the growth in our citizen involvement, and the resources provided to our department with the passing of the public safety sales tax in 2008, help us address many of our major crime issues in the city.

“I am so proud of our citizens because they have truly embraced community-oriented policing,” he says.

Love Thy Neighbor

Partnering with city officials and local police is just one part of the equation in combating urban crime. Brooks, Meckling, Greiner and Humphrey all agree that neighbors also must partner with each other.

“The neighborhood association is the foundation of everything a neighborhood can accomplish,” Meckling says. “The answer for crime-plagued neighborhoods is to bond together and get organized. From that foundation, neighbors can create whatever structure suits their needs. Many people have a misconception about neighborhood associations, thinking they are all about creating rules and restrictions. In fact, the organization can be anything you want and can take many unique forms. It’s all about reaching out, connecting, and being, well, neighborly.”

“Many of our neighborhoods are very organized, which is a key in preventing crime,” says Greiner. “They have set up neighborhood associations, watches and patrols, which all deter crime (or at least move crime to another area).

“My goal is to encourage all of the neighborhoods in Ward 1 to get involved in their neighborhoods because they can and will make a difference,” he says. “Too often, we feel like we can’t do anything, and I want to change that mentality. If we change this mentality, private developers and nonprofit organizations will more likely want to come into a deteriorated area and invest their time and money to improve it. I believe this is where real change will come from, not from government.”

Meckling says that a sense of community is the key. “Our crime-watch training encourages neighbors to get to know one another not only for the intangible benefits of social connectedness, but also because it is a huge tool in crime prevention,” she says. “Knowing who belongs in your neighborhood is key to being able to spot, report and share suspicious activity.”

She gives the example of Oklahoma City’s historic Putnam Heights neighborhood, which suffered a rash of burglaries until a resident spotted the offender and shared the description with both neighbors and police. The individual was quickly apprehended and convicted.
“Neighborhoods can think of their social network as a secret weapon against crime – it really works,” Meckling says.

Making a Better Place

Brooks agrees that being familiar with neighbors and the neighborhood is essential, especially when it comes to recognizing someone or something that doesn’t belong. In addition, he says, “If you see something suspicious, say something. Report it to the police. Don’t get involved; just be a good witness by noting cars and individual descriptions.

“If you don’t have an Alert Neighbor program, get one started,” he also recommends. “By working with the police, you can improve safety and crime-prevention by becoming educated on crime-prevention tactics, such as environmental design and lighting to deter crime.”

Last but not least, he says avoid becoming a victim; take all precautions in protecting your home, family and belongings.

“Communication is key for neighborhoods,” Brooks says. “Talk to neighbors on a regular basis. Set up an email network for the neighborhood so you can quickly alert others. It takes a team effort to protect a community.”

Meckling says that the Neighborhood Alliance is a resource for numerous programs for helping citizens organize to protect and improve their neighborhoods.

“The Neighborhood Alliance offers workshops and one-on-one assistance to help neighborhoods organize, be an effective organization, learn how to be capable neighborhood leaders and raise funds for neighborhood-led projects,” she says. “There is a lot of information on our website about associations and the tools for making yours a better one. We can help with incorporating, writing bylaws and getting crime reports. We’ll even come out to your neighborhood meeting to give crime-watch training.

“Making your neighborhood a better place doesn’t have to be a monumental effort,” Meckling says. “You just need to care and be willing to make some friends.”