Crime Watchers: Meet the Citizens Who Patrol Our Streets

By Michael Alan Goldberg
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Sep. 7, 2011

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Darkness has fallen, so Ricks—antsy to get going—hops off the bench and heads out on patrol. He heads past his church, where in the breezeway under the stairs, near the detritus of drug use, prostitutes sometimes turn tricks. He walks past a seniors’ complex, where an old man was rolled by four thugs the night before. “It’s gonna happen,” Ricks laments. “You can’t be everywhere and see everything.”

He stops near Finnegan Playground, where he says a “flash-mob-type incident” happened one night in March of last year: A 41-year-old woman was attacked by a mob of teens on her way home from work; a member of Ricks’ town watch was nearby and called in a robbery in progress. Ricks says police detained 10 suspects, and that one juvenile offender was later convicted of minor assault.

“Sometimes you see a bunch of strangers show up at night all of a sudden and they’re carrying baseball bats,” he says. “You have to ask yourself, ‘Where are the gloves? Who’s got the ball?’ We don’t see that, we’re calling 911. Let them explain it to the police.”

Ricks walks past John M. Patterson Elementary School and notices a red SUV parked on the corner with no license plate. He pulls out a folded neighborhood map from his pocket and jots down a description of the vehicle. There’s a nearby streetlight that always seems to be busted; he scribbles that down, too.

At the corner of 71st and Elmwood, a drug deal goes down outside the Golden Kingdom II Chinese takeout joint. “Yeah, I know these two,” Ricks murmurs as he melts into the shadows while buyer and seller make their quick transaction. The dealer ducks inside Golden Kingdom while his customer disappears down 71st. Ricks follows. Just behind the restaurant there’s rustling noises near some trash bins. “He’s in there gettin’ high,” Ricks mutters. Two young girls, one on a tricycle, play on the nearby sidewalk. “It’s usually meth, pills, sometimes crack,” he says, scribbling as he walks. “They’ve picked him up before. Guess they’ll have to pick him up again.”

Back in the park before heading home to write up his nightly report and email it off to the 12th, Ricks says that his town-watch methods have earned the respect of his neighbors. “They know I get things done,” he says.

Between 2006 and 2010, Ricks’ town-watch group made 1,059 911 calls requesting police response; 138 of those were priority calls for major crimes in progress (burglaries, assaults, robberies, rapes and persons brandishing a gun or other weapon). Fifty of those calls, Ricks reports, resulted in police stopping or detaining 106 suspects, many of whom—as per Ricks’ detailed follow-up notes—were arrested and charged with a crime; several were later convicted.

“For just one sector, that’s not an insignificant number,” says Ricks. “You get six people arrested, you might take 100 crimes off the sheet. Sometimes it’s the same guy out robbing houses.”

Back at Moore’s house, her husband, Robert, and their 13-year-old daughter, Miracle, still shudder when they think about the immediate aftermath of the attack.

“I was like, what’s gonna happen? Am I still gonna have a mom?” says Miracle. “I didn’t sleep at home ’cause I was scared. And then at the hospital she squeezed my hand so I knew that she was gonna be alive.”

“I’m glad that she’s here,” Robert says. “I thought I might lose her. All that she’s been through has been really hard, but she’s a crusader. You gotta have something in you, and what she has in her, you can’t find words for it. Things like this happen because [criminals] want you to stop, but if you think she was working hard before, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.”

When she is making her town watch rounds, Moore says she has walked up to drug dealers, kids getting into violent fights on the street and would-be thieves and tried to talk some sense into them—handing out literature and recommending programs, laying guilt trips on them (“You keep doin’ this, it gonna come back on your family”), or warning them she’s gonna call the cops. “I ain’t afraid to turn them in, they don’t intimidate me,” she says.

Her husband insists that jail rarely sways people from their criminal behavior. “You have guys who’ve been arrested 23 times, it ain’t nothin’ to them,” he says. “See, there’s something wrong with their heart. It starts when they was young. If someone would’ve hugged them up ... you gotta remember, a lot of these kids never was loved, never had nobody say a kind word to them. Now they adults. What can you do? You gotta go inside. Maybe you can reach them.”

Sometimes Moore just listens to what they have to say, finds out what’s going on in their lives, offers support and guidance. Sometimes it works. She brings up “Dink”—a local thug who used to come around the block to fight his pit bull or break into cars (including Robert’s) to support his crack habit. Many times she confronted him, tried to reason with him, shame him or threaten him. Finally, she helped him get clean, and now, she says, he helps her with her community outreach work (“Dink” declined to be interviewed for this piece).

Sometimes it doesn’t work. “I’m not stupid,” she says. “I know people gonna do what they gonna do. That’s on them. But you got to try. You don’t know what these people are going through. We got to educate, not incarcerate.”

Ricks says that being a part of town watch is simply “the right thing to do,” and he insists he wouldn’t be out patrolling night after night if he didn’t think his efforts mattered. Particularly considering the price he’s occasionally paid. Ricks says he’s been attacked several times—nothing as brutal as what Moore went through, but harrowing incidents nonetheless—including one night in 1995 when four friends of a robbery suspect Ricks reported and helped put in jail jumped him outside his house while he was taking his trash out, punching him numerous times before taking off.

Ricks caught wind that the robber was looking to get some payback himself upon his release from prison, but, he says, “I heard he stole a car and then bailed out and jumped over a railing on I-95, and he didn’t realize that I-95 is elevated where he was, so ...” Ricks shakes his head. “He’s not bothering us anymore.”

For Moore, her work out on the streets is intensely personal. It’s partially borne from her deep religious faith, her belief that everyone can be redeemed if you show them the way.

It also comes from a family tragedy: In the early ’80s, Moore’s younger brother Eric, known on the streets as “Chicken,” was involved in so-called “wolfpack” attacks—random robberies and beatings similar to the recent youth mob attacks—and car theft. In July of 1981, along with two accomplices, he robbed and shot to death 44-year-old Yefim Zaks, a Russian immigrant heading to his Center City engineering job one morning, then drove to Southwest Philly where he dumped Zaks’ body. Arrested later that day after a routine traffic stop while driving Zaks’ car, “Chicken” received a life sentence for the murder in 1982.

Moore says she regrets not being able to talk some sense into her brother before the incident, and wishes there had been someone else to intervene and convince him to go down a different path. It’s in the back of her mind as she walks around her neighborhood, and she tells the tale to criminals and would-be criminals she encounters as a kind of “trump card.”

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