A Neighborhood Improvement Journal - Summer 2021


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Safe Streets Campaign Empowers Communities

by Candace Brown



Kathy Martin knew five years ago, that her Larchmont neighborhood in Tacoma, Washington, had its problems, but she didn’t know how much they would impact her life. In the beginning, this mother of several children never expected to join a march, or carry a protest sign, or stand before a group of men who had been arrested for prostitution, look into their eyes, and speak to them “with a Mom’s heart,” she said. Yet she has done all those things, and more.

Likewise, Martin never expected to end up being hired by a non-profit organization called the Safe Streets Campaign, but that recently happened too. Now, Community Activation Specialist Martin thinks about how the family tragedies she hopes to prevent through her job could easily have been her own.

“I was taking my son to middle school,” Martin said, “and I started noticing that the middle school students who were walking to school were being approached by drug dealers and prostitutes.”

And that wasn’t all. Two men in a car approached her thirteen-year-old daughter and a friend. In another incident, her daughter was going to the neighborhood store just three houses down and around the corner, with her four-year-old sister along. “There was a guy in a brown truck watching some kids, and he spoke to her, wanting her phone number,” Martin said. “When I heard about it, I asked her why she didn’t call me. I could have been there in a minute and gotten a license number. And she said she just didn’t think of it.” The potential for tragedy ate at Martin.

She began to ask other people what they were seeing. Prostitutes did their work right in people’s yards and left the filthy evidence behind. Drug dealers and pimps interfered with local stores and other businesses. One prostitute started yelling inside a restaurant filled with people, and then took off her shirt. Another assaulted a restaurant owner after being asked to leave the parking lot. Something had to be done.


Anti-prostitution rally being addressed by Dr. Priscilla Lisicich, Safe Streets Executive Director.

Luckily for Miller and her neighbors, other citizens of Tacoma and Pierce County had already pioneered a movement that would make battling these problems easier, or at least possible. They were the 2,500 determined citizens who gathered at a community meeting back in 1989, fed up with the fear and danger that dominated their lives, ready to take back the communities they called home. They’d had enough. On that historic day, the organization formally known by its copyrighted name, “Safe Streets Campaign,” was born. Executive Director Priscilla Lisicich, Ph. D. was one of those involved from the beginning, 22 years ago. Her quote on their website expresses the organization’s core philosophy: “The best deterrent to crime is for you to get to know your neighbors.”

At times in the past, the Tacoma/Pierce County area seemed overwhelmed by criminal activity involving gang violence, prostitution, and drug dealing, especially methamphetamines. By 1990, during Safe Streets’ infancy, the number of gang members in Tacoma reached a shocking 2,500, according to Safe Streets. The challenges would require meaningful cooperation and communication between citizen groups, police, and other organizations. And that happened.

Originally developed through the joint efforts of Pierce County, the City of Tacoma, Tacoma Public Schools, and United Way, the Safe Streets Campaign became an independent non-profit corporation in 1995 and has received widespread national recognition. Other individuals and entities approach the organization for guidance.

The Safe Street Campaign’s Deputy Director Steve Jewell—a former deputy chief for the Washington State Patrol who retired after a 30-year career—remembers those days of public outcry. Citizens wanted empowerment, which Safe Streets provided. In a recent interview, Jewell described the way it met that need:

It really was building on the fundamentals of community organizing at the time. You need to be organized in any arena, business or neighborhood to be effective. The need has to come from those who are living there.  It's  about residents and that local community saying, ‘We know what’s best. We live here and we know how to help our youth here. We know how to help our vulnerable residents. Give us the tools and we’ll decide how to prioritize and how to use our resources.’

“That sustains a community over the long term and builds that continuity and commitment to a neighborhood. Otherwise you simply have rotating government services that come and go. An educated, informed and involved resident is the key to long lasting change.”  

Changes did take place, including:

·         A dramatic drop in gang membership (Starting at 2,500 in 1990 the number fell to 500 by 2003.)

·         Neighborhood councils were formed in 16 regions of the county

·         Community Policing Programs were created in Tacoma and nearby Lakewood

·         The Drug House Elimination Team in Tacoma was assembled.

·         Safe Streets organized 5,000 Block Watch groups with 1,700 still ongoing

·         Creation of the Youth Leading Change Program, for youth of high school age


The Goals and Methods

Major aspects of Safe Streets are the organization of citizens in both residential and business neighborhoods and community policing.  Perhaps the most important factor is simply neighbors getting to know each other. Jewell explained how this comprehensive approach works:

“What we really want to bring to our neighbors are some real fundamental building blocks; how to communicate, how to collaborate, how to look at an individual problem, how to focus the efforts of the local community. And by that I mean the residents that are obviously living there, the local businesses, the church, the school, and our police who patrol those areas.

We look at those things in a holistic fashion, focus those efforts over time, and show that we can do anything, like cleaning up a persistent trashy area where prostitutes are doing their business, or where drug use is evident—which really promotes the violence that we see in our communities. So we bring those tools to our communities to show them, ‘This is how to do it, how to work together and collaborate over time to clean up these areas and establish a healthy, safe place for our families.’”

Safe Streets provides training classes, like “Block Watch 101” and the “Neighborhood Patrol Academy.” Groups participate in National Night Out and combat graffiti through the “Fight the Blight” program, covering “tags” with paint as soon as they appear. Safe Streets hosts a free barbeque for everyone who participates in that effort, to celebrate and socialize.


Operation Graffiti Cover-up - TPD's Officer Don Williams

Community Policing as a Crucial Factor

The Tacoma Police Department divides the city into four geographic sectors, assigning Community Liaison Officers to each. Since 2008, Officer Daniel Hensley has served as the CLO for the southeast area of the city, including the Larchmont neighborhood and the Upper Pacific Avenue business area. These officers build strong connections to neighborhood watch groups, business groups, housing authorities and numerous departments within the municipal government.

 “The purpose is to collaborate with all groups to find solutions to a wide range of problems,” Hensley said. “The city has discovered that assigning police officers to liaison directly with the community is actually cost effective by reducing the calls-for-service volume. This allows other officers to conduct proactive policing to reduce crime.”

 When it comes to community policing, Martin knows first-hand how effective it is. “I cannot say enough about Officer Hensley,” she said, while praising the CLO program. “They have been so open to us. They really take the community problems and issues seriously. They really care. I always say they are our bridge from the citizen to the police department.”

People like Martin and Pen make it all happen through their commitment. “Kathy led both groups for several years as a volunteer resident that cared about the quality of life of the area and took the initiative to help improve it,” Hensely said. The Larchmont group area includes about 800 households and the Upper Pacific Avenue Business Group, about 100 businesses.

“For many years, that area has battled major problems of street prostitution, open drug dealing, drug houses, gang houses and all the other crime related to those things,” Hensley said. “Kathy and many other citizens helped to bring attention to the problems and push for government resources to reduce them.” He then added,The citizens also helped by conducting their own patrols and street demonstrations to send the message that the community will not tolerate criminal activity in their neighborhood.

Safe Streets made it all possible, ready and waiting when Martin and her neighbors needed someone to turn to. After the plea for help came in, Safe Streets started a neighborhood group and contacted the CLO assigned to her area at that time. He listened to the concerns and went to his supervisor with what he’d learned.  

Next, Darren Pen, a community mobilization specialist honored by the organization as one of its Superstars—“people who have shown remarkable commitment to improving their communities”—organized a protest march and invited the media. A TV station reported on the event.


Darren Pen, Safe Streets Community Organizer

Martin believed the reporter considered rampant crime as simply normal for her neighborhood. “It really bothered me,” she said. “That’s when we really started focusing on the issues. It took about a year to get the business people involved. A lot of them were afraid. It takes the business community and neighbors working together to change things.”

Organization as the Key

It all starts with organizing neighborhoods, one at a time. The Safe Streets website lists these reasons for organizing:

  • The best crime prevention tool is a good neighbor.
  • Joint efforts are more effective than individual ones.
  • There are more citizens than there are law enforcement agents.
  • Citizens can be an extension of law enforcement’s eyes and ears.
  • Citizens provide a vast resource pool.

Jewell said, "Their democratic voice becomes so much more powerful as a group or 25, perhaps 50, individuals expressing their viewpoints to policy makers as to how resources should be distributed, how laws should be enforced.  And that king of emposerment is really the magic that makes this kine of machine run."    

Hensley explained how neighborhood groups function:

These groups attend meetings with the CLOs to discuss specific neighborhood problems and collaborate to find solutions. Group members also have direct access to the CLOs on a day-to-day basis to address more immediate problems.

The Safe Streets organization also arranges to have guest speakers attend the meetings to help educate citizens on many different topics related to improving the community. Some guest speakers have included the county prosecutor, county auditor, city council members, 911 personnel, traffic engineers, gang specialists, drug experts, etc. The main message is that the community must take responsibility for their neighborhoods in order for the quality of life to improve.”


 Wapato South - 911 Presentation

Martin approached new neighbors with hospitality, and a subtle message. “When someone new moved in,” she said, “whether they bought or were renters, what I would do was to go over and introduce myself and I introduced our Safe Streets group. Maybe I’d even bring them some cookies.” She would also give them printed literature about the community group and that way, in case they were the type of people who might think about causing trouble, they would know citizens in that neighborhood were involved and wouldn’t tolerate it.

Working Proactively with Youth

The Safe Streets Campaign takes pride in its Youth Leading Change Program. “It is about bringing the skills, opportunities, and recognition to youth,” Jewell said, “They begin to build healthy relationships with their peers and with adults. They begin to make healthy choices in life. It’s a model that works for everyone. We find that recognition is often overlooked and it can be the most effective piece.” He calls it “heartwarming” to see how kids react when rewarded for making positive contributions to society. Safe Streets engages teens at about ten high schools and plans to increase the focus on middle school students.

“We bring them change in their personal leadership skills,” Jewell said, “We help them change their neighborhoods in terms of service opportunities. But then we help to bring a bigger change to them in terms of transitioning them into the adult world where they understand their obligation to contribute to the broader world once they step out of high school.”

Safe Streets is a major participant in the Pierce County Regional Gang Prevention Partnership. Its science-based model contains five key strategies:

• Community Mobilization

• Social Intervention

• Opportunities and Provisions

• Suppression

• Organizational Systems Change and Development

The group’s Evaluation of Activities and Results report for 2007-2009 makes impressive reading as far as demonstrating the intense and widespread efforts applied to this problem, and features this quote on the cover:

"Gang violence is about a lethal absence of hope…and I've never met a hopeful kid who joined a gang." Father Greg Boyle, Homeboy Industries


At the same time though, the report shows how serious the problem still is. As typical of gang activity’s cyclical pattern, since the drop that occurred between 1990 and 2003, figures are once again on the rise.  That fact makes the efforts of Safe Streets and other programs all the more critical. But those involved in the battle remain hopeful.


Staying Positive 


Hope keeps people like Jewell, Martin, and Pen going, even in the face of cutbacks in funds and staff, although Jewell pointed out that an investment in this organization offers a generous payoff. They continue to work hard for funding—which comes from city, county, state, and federal governments, private foundations and individual gifts—but have had to step back a bit in their support of well-established groups in favor of those on shakier ground, in the harder-to-reach, more disenfranchised neighborhoods.


Jewell advises cities starting such a program to persevere. "Trust the theory", he said.  "Trust the practice of this prevention science that, in the simplest terms, brings safer neighborhoods.  It's just a matter of sticking to it and trusting that it works for people to be able to rely on each other and care for each other, and that's really the basis of the communtiy organizing that we do."   

Martin worries that many communities lack anything like Safe Streets.  "I really believe that without Safe Streets’ guidance, it would be difficult to solve the issues in the community,” she said. “These changes don’t happen overnight. Be persistent and be the squeaky wheel. See if you have a neighborhood watch group, or go to your city council. Find some way to get involved. You can change things.”


A member of the Neighborhood Patrol Team

Community involvement led to Martin’s new job with Safe Streets, where she will put her maternal instincts to good use. After the close call with her daughter’s potential abduction, she went online to look for self-defense classes for teenagers and found one called “Just Yell Fire.” She hopes to make this a regular part of the Safe Streets Campaign. As a port city and transportation hub, Tacoma is vulnerable to human trafficking. Compared to five years ago, when 20-30 prostitutes would work Pacific Avenue, she says now you might see one or two, but some are as young as 12 years old.

The gang and drug challenges remain daunting, as elsewhere in the United States, but TPD reports comparing 2009 to 2010 showed a citywide drop in calls-for-service related to prostitution from 606 to 388. Crimes designated as “destruction/damage/vandalism” in the all of city’s four reporting sectors during that same period were down, ranging from -19% to -37.3%. Rates for simple assaults in the four sectors dropped too, ranging from -5.4% to -21.8%. All sectors reported drops in incidents of intimidation, ranging from -33.3% to -82.7%.

Obviously, the Safe Streets Campaign makes a huge difference. Jewell, whose dedication never wavers, puts it in real life, down-to-earth terms: “When people tell us, ‘We are simply walking our neighborhood streets again,’ sometimes that’s the best data of all.”


Block Group celebrating National Night Out


Safe Streets Campaign   www.safest.org 

Tacoma Police Dept.  http://www.cityoftacoma.org/Page.aspx?hid=1907 

Meth Watch Program  www.methwatch.com

National Night Out 2011-- America's Nigh Out Against Crime  http://www.natw.org/nno/

Homeboy Industries --- "Nothing Stops a Bullet Like a Job"  http://www.homeboy-industries.org/



Safe Streets Campaign www.safest.org

City of Tacoma Police Department http://www.cityoftacoma.org/Page.aspx?hid=1907



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