Moving to Lavaca from Alamo Heights has been a fulfilling adventure. Proximity to the river and restaurants, interesting diverse neighbors, art and music an easy bike pedal away, and the chance to begin anew in a town I’ve called home for 23 years. And then there’s the petty crime.
At our house near Brackenridge High School we watch a constant parade of teens en route to the corner convenience store for cigarettes, junk food and sodas. Residents of nearby halfway houses make the same trek multiple times a day, often throwing their losing scratch-off tickets in our front yard to be collected with all the student litter.
We’ve suffered a rash of petty crimes recently–tools and plants stolen, my vintage Gary Fisher bicycle ripped off from the porch (it was double locked), then an attempted break-in. Nothing dangerous or scary, and I don’t second guess my decision to urban pioneer. That said, the crime factor is annoying and makes you wonder what to do.
Fortunately, there’s help for us newbie urban pioneers: the San Antonio Police Department’s SAFFE program, formed in 1994 at the behest of then-Police Chief Al Phillipus. The community outreach program stands for San Antonio Fear Free Environment, and is core to SAPD’s Community Policing activities.
The program began with 60 officers and supervisors, then grew another 40 officers in 1996. Today, the SAFFE Unit accounts for 140 of SAPD’s 2400 police officers. SAFFE officers are assigned to specific neighborhoods within the city. Their job is to identify, evaluate and resolve community crime problems by engaging with the community. Check for your SAFFE officer on the SAPD webpage.
“Each SAFFE officer went to school to empower the neighborhood,” said Officer Ron Strothman of the Central SAFFE Unit. Officer Strothman and Officer Gilberto Santos both responded to my call recently when I reported plants and tools stolen. They suggested conducting a block walk inviting neighbors to participate in a friendly-but-attentive neighborhood watch program.
Danny and Rowena Dominguez had a wreath stolen from their front door last week. Rowena had spent hours crafting the Easter wreath. One day after hanging it on her front door, vandals took it. She had already replaced the paper flowered decoration with another handmade gem by the time of our visit, but her frustration was apparent. The new one was sandwiched between the front and screen door. “And now we lock the screen door,” she said.
According to our SAFFE officers, most petty crimes like plant, pot and wreath-stealing occur in the morning. Officer Santos described one recent scam where bicyclists will scope out a neighborhood, then relay easy pickings to a partner in a car who follows shortly behind. The driver then pulls up and snatches the potted plant, the garden tools, the ladder–or the wreath. “It’s a pattern we’re seeing,” said Officer Strothman.
Officer Strothman said SAFFE officers get neighbors to work together, helping them build relationships with and making sure they avail themselves of city services. When neighbor Mary Furlow wondered who to call about a burned out corner street light, the officers advised her to contact City Public Service, for example.
The officers encouraged us to rethink our reluctance to call the cops when we see someone or something suspicious. Most of us hesitate to bother law enforcement about minor theft like a potted plant from the front porch. But by not doing so, you work against having a safe neighborhood. The more calls a neighborhood places to the SAPD, the more patrolling it receives. “If you don’t place calls, they don’t assign patrols here,” said Officer Santos. The officers strongly discouraged dealing with matters directly. Let the police do that job.
The goal of our crime walk was to meet neighbors and get buy-in for a neighborhood watch program, which includes the purchase of two $55 signs–one at each end of the block–that alert criminals WE ARE WATCHING. According to Officer Santos, placement of neighborhood watch signs on a street reduce crime there by 80%.
The response to the block walk was unanimously positive. Each of the dozen neighbors we met has been touched by petty crime in recent months–and didn’t know what to do about it. The email and phone list collected will be used to organize a neighborhood meeting next week at which our SAFFE officers will provide guidance about anti-crime steps we can take. We’ll keep you posted of progress.