It was the last straw for Calvin Colbert.
A long-time community activist, he was pained by violence among youth in the early 1990s as robberies of popular clothes and jewelry escalated on Detroit streets. When he heard a Redford High School football player was killed for his gym shoes while waiting at a bus stop, Colbert felt compelled to organize.
The result was Brothers on Patrol (BOP), a volunteer-driven program he co-founded with Bernard Spragner that operates daily during the hours students travel to and from school September through June. Twenty-three years later red “BOP” hats are still visible on the heads of men who drive designated neighborhoods from 7 a.m. to 9 a.m. and 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. The program is credited with helping to create the Detroit Public Schools Safe Routes to School model.
BOP is just one example of citizens throughout Detroit directly involving themselves in crime prevention. From traditional block club safety committees that monitor neighborhood activity to foot and vehicle patrols, dedicated residents work to secure their homes and streets.
“I always say the patrol is a friendly part of the community,” says Colbert. “We cannot exist without the community receiving us.”
BOP operates primarily in the Cody Rouge neighborhood, monitoring students who attend Cody High School, and in the areas around Henry Ford High. A 54- percent decrease in rapes, robberies and assaults during patrol hours in BOP-monitored areas was reported in 2015, Colbert says.
The program’s impact throughout the years has been felt in the Redford High community after the football player’s death, and in the Ruddiman Middle School neighborhood, Colbert says, but BOP hasn’t limited itself to interacting with students, parents and educators. Communication is key to establishing safer surroundings, as proven by BOP’s experience in the Herman Gardens housing complex.
“We went into the Herman Gardens and talked to the (drug) dealers and asked them, between the hours that the children were going to school, to take it off the street,” Colbert says. “We told them, ‘These are your brothers and your sisters, your family members who are traveling through these areas where you’re openly selling drugs.’”
The dealers agreed.
Derek Blackmon, program director of Black Family Development’s neighborhood safety initiative, works with block clubs in the Cody Rouge, Southwest Detroit, and Osborn community on Detroit’s east side, coordinating “peace and safety walks” with residents. Part-security campaign and part-demonstration, the walks have been known to occasionally include fire engines and similar high-profile displays and chants.
The goal of visible mobilization is to unify citizens about the need for vigilance, but it doesn’t negate the need for day-to-day precautions among residents, Blackmon adds. A basic recommendation for living in single-family home areas is that occupants know their neighbors to the left, right, across the street, and especially to their rear, he says.
“We know that 90 percent of break-ins take place in the back of the house,” says Blackmon.
Crystal Fields, who leads the AmeriCorps Urban Safety Project based at Jefferson East, Inc., joined Blackmon and other presenters at a recent seminar to discuss crime prevention strategies during an ARISE Detroit conference at Wayne County Community College District. AmeriCorps identifies “hot spots” for larceny, assault, and other safety threats, while working to educate the community about how to avoid becoming victims.
Simple efforts like removing valuables from car seats and not leaving guns in glove compartments can prevent petty thefts and vandalism in driveways and streets where vehicles are parked, says Fields.
“You still should be organizing,” she says. “You still should be forming partnerships with your police agencies.”
In her experience, Fields says as few as three hours per month can suffice as a time commitment with a large enough volunteer pool to effectively monitor neighborhoods.
“You should never be out here doing anything by yourself. You’re not Rambo, you’re not Charles Bronson,” she says.
But Detroit Police Detective Brian Fountain, who trains neighborhood police officers and regularly interacts with residents, says lacking Rambo’s muscles or guns shouldn’t keep neighbors from speaking up.
“You can’t be ruled by fear. Criminals respect that you want to live in a quiet community,” says Fountain. “If you sit down and don’t say anything, you’re telling them it’s alright.”
Aggressive confrontation of suspected criminals isn’t necessary, but only questions like, “What are you all doing in there?” Fountain says.
“There was a guy in my neighborhood looking in an empty house,” he recalls. “I simply said, ‘Can I help you?’ I haven’t seen him in eight months, and I never even identified myself as the police.”
Not only are citizen crime prevention efforts beneficial to neighbors, Fountain says volunteer cooperation is vital to law enforcement.
“It’s critical. I’ll tell you why. We don’t know where the drug houses are,” he says. “Somebody sitting in a car, if we pass by, we might just think it’s somebody sitting in a car. The citizens will know they’re waiting to buy drugs.”
Downloading a free DPD Connect web application will give anyone numbers and contact information for every neighborhood police officer and provide other resources for those looking to coordinate safety efforts.
Colbert says BOP has always worked in collaboration with Detroit Police and the Detroit Public Schools Police department, especially when met with resentment by gang members or other opposition.
“We tell them we’re out here on their behalf, but there’s a different group coming behind us with a whole different attitude if they don’t want to work with us,” he says.
In recent years Sisters on Patrol, sporting pink “SOP” caps, has included women volunteers who keep watch on school routes.
Fields says connecting and replicating models that work is always valuable. “Networking and building relationships with your partners who are already doing it is wise, so you don’t carry the burden by yourself.”