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"Citizens have got to assume their place as equal partners"

Last summer, Larry Simpson says he spent 300 hours on the streets of his St. Paul, Minn., neighborhood, both walking and driving in a white Crown Vic' with "Community Watch" emblazoned on the sides. Simpson bought the car himself on eBay when he decided he couldn't adequately cover the streets on foot.

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In January 2007, there were two violent rapes in one week in Simpson's Payne-Phalen neighborhood. Residents were outraged and afraid. At a community meeting, Simpson says he heard "a typical outcry for the chief of police, mayor, and city council representatives to 'solve this problem,' to protect us."

Elected officials have a role to play in the livability and safety of their city, says Simpson, but "citizens have got to go out there and assume their rightful place as equal partners with the city." He decided after that community meeting that he'd start walking the alleys with a flashlight in the pre-dawn hours "to make sure no one was lurking."

Defining community

When he tells the story of how he came to lead community watch in his neighborhood, Simpson quotes Jay Walljasper, author of "The Great Neighborhood Book": "You need a coffee shop and hard boundaries before you can have community." The area that Simpson covers (he rejects the word patrol as too militaristic) is bounded by major streets and includes 1,200 to 1,500 people, plus businesses and a fire station. To the police, it's known as Reporting Grid 34. It also includes an independent coffee shop called Polly's Coffee Cove, whose owners encourage its use as a gathering place and staging ground for what Simpson jokingly refers to as "the revolution."

In May 2008, after Simpson bought the community watch car, he added shifts on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights when he would slowly drive the streets of Grid 34.

"Kids were the first ones to be attracted to the car," says Simpson. "It started with two boys," he explains. "They said 'Can we go for a ride?' 'No,' I said, 'we have to have a reason, something to do.'"

Eventually, Simpson says, he offered to hire the kids on Saturday or Sunday mornings to find graffiti and pick up trash, followed by breakfast at McDonald's. There was one catch: Simpson required kids to tell him their name and phone number, the name of one of their parents, and to save one third of their earnings with him. Before school started, he would pay out their savings so they could buy clothes or other supplies. Word spread, and by October Simpson says he had 15 boys ages 10 to 13 years old who wanted to work for him.

The goal, he says, was to get to know the kids and build a connection. "They'd introduce me to their mom or dad," he says. "I knew where they lived. They lived way down on the south side [of Grid 34]...that's pretty tough living."

Simpson also started carrying $3 gift cards for Polly's Coffee Cove. "Any time I catch someone doing something good -- picking up trash, picking up dog poop -- I say 'Thank you, you are busted for doing something good!' It's amazing what a 30-second positive connection will do if you have to come around later with a negative request."

Finding shared self-interest

Simpson retired a few years ago after a long career as an engineer at 3M and entrepreneur, and says he's achieved all of the big goals he set for himself. The death of his daughter from cancer two years ago also gave Simpson a clarity and fearlessness in pursuing his vision for the neighborhood.

This summer, he's driving an expanded route to include the area near Lake Phalen, where a handful of violent attacks occurred last year. He started to recruit walkers, and signed up 40 people in one weekend last spring. When city officials got involved and wanted to do background checks on volunteers and have them go through training with the parks and recreation department, Simpson did not hide his frustration. "These are people we know, as friends and neighbors," he says. At the same time, he adds, "as citizens, we've got to prove that we can be counted on and that we will keep [our commitment] for as long as it takes."

Although he's still mostly a one-man, self-funded operation with occasional donations from neighbors and friends, Simpson is interested in how he can organize other people. Last year, he joined a group of neighbors exploring a restorative justice project and ways to connect people to the Dispute Resolution Center at the nearby McNerney Housing Project.

The next big issue for Simpson could very well be how to work with a broader group of residents, city officials, police officers, and the community council to address the safety and livability issues he is so passionate about.

Read Payne-Phalen coffee klatch brews bonds of community, Star Tribune, April 14, 2009

Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs