Eric Blauer, a pastor at Jacob’s Well Church, knows the people in his East Fifth Avenue neighborhood very well.
He knows where the single parents live, which homes are rentals and which are owned by lifelong residents. He knows where the drug dealers live and where the prostitutes take their customers.
When he moved to East Central with his family eight years ago, he knew he was moving into a low-income neighborhood with some significant challenges, but he never anticipated he would end up feeling like the sheriff there.
“I do insert myself into it,” he said, shrugging his shoulders, while on a recent walk through East Central. “But I live here. These problems we are talking about are my problems – not other people’s problems.”
A tall man with a big beard, Blauer calls Crime Check or 911 when a screaming match between neighbors escalates into a fight. He calls again when groups get into fights at nearby Underhill Park. He takes pictures of what looks like drug deals going down in front of his home, and now he’s also writing down license plate numbers.
His calls to police don’t go unanswered but he rarely gets the response he’s hoping for: swift enforcement. Instead he’s being asked to write down license plate numbers and keep track of what’s going on at suspected drug houses.
As frustrating as the process has been for Blauer, Spokane police Officer Dion Mason, the East Central Neighborhood resource officer, said the pastor is doing the right thing.
“But he can’t do it by himself,” Mason said. “He has to get his neighbors involved. The more people call in the better response they get.”
At a recent crime prevention forum hosted by COPS East Central, only four community members showed up. COPS program manager Maurece Vulcano blamed the low turnout on the rain and hail storms that were moving through town that night.
Blauer said he didn’t make the meeting because he didn’t hear about it soon enough.
“Not showing up at a meeting doesn’t mean people don’t care,” he said. “There’s got to be a better way of communicating with the neighborhood.”
Added Blauer, “I’m a taxpayer and I’m being asked to police my own neighborhood.”
On the recommendation of a COPS Shop volunteer, Blauer downloaded the 72-page “Safe Streets!” community action guide for advice on how to curb crime in his neighborhood.
“I sit here and flip through it and realize I’m already doing all these things,” Blauer said.
He has gotten to the point where he believes “there’s a serious breakdown in the community-oriented policing model here,” he said. “It’s not working.”
Mason, the neighborhood resource officer, noted that he has been on extended sick leave and Officer Timothy Ottmar has been filling in, covering all of southeast Spokane.
Mason said that under normal staffing circumstances reports like the ones filed by Blauer would reach him within a day or two.
“We check the call history on an address and we go out and do surveillance,” Mason said. “We knock on doors and tell people their neighbors are complaining about them.”
Police Ombudsman Tim Burns said communication difficulties are not unique to Spokane, and how to get the word out is a constant theme in community-oriented policing.
“How do you entice people to come out and participate in the community?” Burns said, adding that another crime prevention forum in Browne’s Addition had only slightly better attendance. “It is very difficult to reach people unless there’s a high-profile event in their neighborhood.”
Social media are not a good communications solution in low-income neighborhoods where many households don’t have Internet access.
“Ask elected officials: They will tell you that doorbelling works – you have to do the work,” Burns said.
He added that the Office of the Police Ombudsman is there to help facilitate communication and find solutions in situations like Blauer’s.
“If nobody tells us what’s going on we can’t investigate it,” Burns said. “There is definitely an opportunity here to do something right.”