Neighbors Spy On Drug Suspects Safe Streets Program Puts Pressure On Landlords To Evict Dealers
They sat for hours peering out their windows, lights off, cellular telephones nearby, straining to catch license numbers and note drivers’ descriptions.
All told, about a dozen people kept watch on 2208 W. Maxwell for almost two months. They weren’t garden-variety nosy neighbors. They were trolling for evidence of a drug house.
“We’re not out to be a bunch of vigilantes,” Daryl Howe said. “We just wanted our neighborhood safe. We lost a lot of sleep.”
“We’d come home during lunch hour, just to check on our house,” added her husband, Henry.
Unwittingly, the neighbors followed most of the advice in a national program called Safe Streets Now, which targets drug house landlords. Citizens and police are launching the program in Spokane, the first city in Washington to use it.
It’s a get-tough program that puts neighbors on the front lines of the drug fight and maybe in the courtroom, suing uncooperative landlords.
Safe Streets in Spokane will start with three test cases. Neighbors in East Central, West Central and northeast Spokane will each pick their drug house of choice by weeding through known and suspected houses in the neighborhoods. Neighbors will do the surveillance work and send letters to landlords. Landlords will deal with neighbors through the community policing organization C.O.P.S.
Eventually, all neighborhoods could be trained in Safe Streets.
Daryl Howe and neighbor Diane Wagner plan to help educate people about how to push out drug dealers.
“The goal of Safe Streets Now is to basically educate the neighborhoods, so they don’t have to go through what we did,” Howe said.
For the Maxwell neighborhood, it started in late January, when police raided the home and confiscated drug paraphernalia and money.
Neighbors thought their problems were over. Instead, the suspicious activity picked up.
Reacting to continued evidence of drug sales, neighbors met in early February and set up a battle plan. They decided to take notes on everything that happened at the house.
In the morning, retired people watched from their homes. During the afternoon, others took over. At night, everyone listened - for barking dogs, noisy cars, police sirens.
“Every time a car pulls up, it has to be written down,” said Henry Howe. “Get binoculars. They’re a must. You can get license plate numbers. You can tell if a guy’s smoking and what brand.”
The Howes weren’t shy. They stood on their front porch and peered through binoculars to watch the cars arrive two houses down.
Diane Wagner was discreet, someone straight out of a spy movie. She turned off the lights, plopped in a chair next to her open upstairs window and looked through a tree at the activity across the street.
When she smoked, Wagner bent low to take furtive puffs from her cigarette under the window sill.
When she couldn’t catch a license plate number, she’d call Henry Howe. He’d jump in his truck, drive around the block and shine his headlights on the plate number. Wagner would jot it down.
Neighbors called police. They called the landlord, Jean Wells. They picked up evidence and bagged it, including an orange-tipped syringe.
“I am so amazed at how they mobilized,” said Wells. “I wanted a copy of their surveillance. It was watched 24 hours a day.”
That’s crucial to Safe Streets. The program, started in Oakland, Calif., in 1989, advises neighbors to keep track of everything happening at a suspected drug house. Besides Spokane, 20 cities in four other states use the program.
Neighbors should write down license plates, descriptions, times and dates. They should write to the landlord stating grievances and suggesting solutions. They should send logs to the police.
Finally, neighbors should sue in small-claims court for up to $2,500 each under the city’s nuisance ordinance if the landlord doesn’t comply with neighbors’ wishes. The problems are fixed 85 percent of the time before court, said Molly Wetzel, Safe Streets’ founder. Neighbors have won all 50 cases that went to court, she said.
Wells said she would be interested in learning more about Safe Streets. As part of the Spokane program, Sgt. Gill Moberly plans to start educating landlords about how to avoid renting to tenants who will deal drugs, and how to get rid of them if problems do develop.
Moberly’s been trying to bring Safe Streets to Spokane for two years. In May, a dozen police officers and community members were trained in the program.
These people will help train citizens to get rid of drug houses. Neighbors on Maxwell Street will advise them.
Neighbors are critical to the program’s success, Moberly said.
For example, every Sunday night, Daryl Howe gathered the handwritten notes of neighbors and typed them up into stacks of 20 to 40 pages. She sent them to police.
“They did a fantastic job,” said the detective handling the case, who didn’t want to be identified because he often works undercover. “They went way above what most people are willing to do. I can’t say enough about how much they did.”
Although police do little with the lists of license plate numbers, having them will help neighbors prove the level of traffic to and from a suspected drug house if they decide to take legal action, detectives said.
Police sent a letter to landlord Wells, telling her that her property was being investigated for drug use. She was upset that she hadn’t been told earlier. Wells finally got the tenants to leave April 14.
Three days later, one of them was arrested in Airway Heights for allegedly having several rocks of crack cocaine in his underwear.
It took more than a month for Wells to find a new tenant. She told everyone interested about the history of the brown house. She also told them that the neighbors were a friendly, tight-knit group.
“They are such good people,” Wells said. “The people who kept me informed, I took them a candy rose at Easter. They kind of borderline harassed (the tenants), but they were doing their jobs, keeping their neighborhood safe. They helped me, too.”
She finally found a tenant. Neil Cane sat recently on the steps of his new house. He watered the lawn. He warned his 7-year-old daughter not to run in the street.
Cane is a former deputy prosecutor in Walla Walla and Lewis counties. He opened a private law practice in downtown Spokane last year.
He specializes in family law and criminal defense. Right now, he’s defending a man facing four felony drug charges.
Cane motioned toward the neighbors eating ice cream and joked, “But don’t tell them that.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo