Taking back a community - Neighbors work with police to reclaim their streets
By Wallace McKelvey - Staff Writer
The Daily Times
April 27, 2010
FRANKFORD -- Before the Department of Justice shut down a nearby drug den, Dalfonso Beckett said addicts were constantly meeting dealers in an adjacent farm field and turning around in his driveway.
When he baby-sat his three grandchildren, he tried to shield them from the problem.
"Of course, they figured out what was going on and that it wasn't good," he said.
Since the state placed the house under temporary abatement in November, boarding up its windows and evicting its tenants, Beckett said his neighborhood is safer.
The property is one of 113 statewide whose owners have been targeted for civil action under the Drug Nuisance and Social Vices Abatement Act since 2007.
A total of 321 properties are on a watchlist consisting of resolved cases and reported cases of suspected drug and vice activity, said Jason Miller, a spokesperson for the DOJ.
To rally support for the program, the Attorney General's Office is reaching out to community leaders and has held meetings in embattled neighborhoods.
Attorney General Beau Biden said the goal is to provide relief to families.
"We need to continue to think creatively about how to make communities safer, stronger, better places to raise families and use the criminal justice system to make progress," he said.
A once-dormant statute
Originally signed into law in 2000, Biden said the nuisance abatement act was seldom used before he took office.
"It was pretty much a dormant statute," he said. "We saw what an effective tool it could be."
Deputy Attorney General Dan Logan, who oversees the program, said the statute allows the department to investigate tips from community members and local law enforcement regarding problem properties.
Investigators pore through case records, talk to the officers assigned to that area and take statements from neighbors.
"That will give us a snapshot of what kind of activity is occurring there," he said.
If the investigation yields a pattern of crime, such as three or more drug distribution incidents, a letter is sent to the property owner informing them of the possibility of a civil suit. If the owner cooperates, they can work with the state to eliminate the problem.
"We make suggestions as to what we can do to prevent it from happening again," Logan said, such as evicting tenants, adding lighting, erecting fences or changing the terms of the lease.
"If they do not comply, they know we're all ready with our file, ready to take them to court," he said.
In the most extreme cases, where damages exceed the fair market value of the property, Logan said the owners are given the option of signing the deed over to the state.
According to Miller, that has happened once, so far. Fifteen other properties, including five in Sussex County, have been shut down through judicial intervention.
Logan said those properties will remain closed while the cases are reviewed.
"Of course, we don't want the property closed forever," he said. "This gives immediate relief to get the bad seeds out."
Despite the abatement of three properties on her street, Selbyville resident Shawn Hines said the drugs have persisted, along with the 'no trespassing' signs that are tacked to her mobile home.
Last year, she sent her grandchildren to live with another relative because she feared for their safety.
"If we could all come together, we might have a chance," she said. "With just one person, it's not going to happen."
Because the dealers have not targeted her, Hines has no interest in calling the police.
"I'm conflicted," she said. "As long as they don't bring it in my yard and show some kind of respect, I let it be."
Logan said everything he learns from community members is kept confidential.
"I don't have to use what they say in court, and they don't have to be witnesses," he said. "They're helping me explain what the problem is."
Community involvement is the crux of the abatement program, since neighbors provide a perspective that local law enforcement doesn't have, he said.
"The times I went on site to these places, it's very tempting to go to the neighbors and thank them," he said. "I will talk to them on the phone, but there's no need for others to know who's cooperating and who's not."
The Rev. Kim Tephabock, of the Dagsboro Church of God, said the program has the potential to empower communities that have long been mired in criminal activity.
"One of the centerpieces of that program is that it requires community members to keep their ears to the ground, find out where the drugs are marketed and then be able to say, 'Yes, this is happening in my neighborhood'," he said.
Because residents can remain anonymous, he believes more people will be able to take back their neighborhoods.
"(Criminal) activity hurts everyone in these communities," he said. "This is a great opportunity for you to stand up and do something about it."
Eleanor Whaley, president of the West Side New Beginnings Community Center in the embattled neighborhood of West Rehoboth, said the 2007 abatement of two properties on Norwood Street had an immediate impact on the community.
Knowing the area is under surveillance and that neighbors are willing to call the authorities, dealers don't gather on the problem lots anymore.
"They know that if the police are called, they will come out and take away the problem," she said.
And once the permanent solution is found, as in the case of the West Rehoboth, Logan said it's difficult for illegal activity to regain a foothold.
In addition to a prohibition against drugs on the property, similar prohibitions are imposed on the owners, wherever they go in the state.
"We can charge them with contempt of court if that activity starts up again," he said. "And we're continuing to monitor (the property) because we don't want it ever to go back to what it was."
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