Safe Streets patrols don’t let trash, drug houses spoil Tacoma neighborhoods

Don Becker turns down an alley in his pickup truck on a warm summer evening and stops at a pile of ripped trash bags. Dumped next to a fence, old shoes and other discarded debris lie scattered around the alley, left to rot.

Becker, a 63-year-old freight truck driver by trade, drives around the block to get a better look at the old brown house that fronts the litter-strewn alley in South Tacoma.

His partner Stan Stull scribbles the address on a notepad — a detail he will use later to report a possible infraction to the city’s code enforcement department.

It’s another neighborhood patrol for Becker and Stull, who have been watching the streets of the Park Avenue area for eight years.

They are not police or city employees. They are volunteers with one of 125 different neighborhood groups organized by Safe Streets, which celebrates its 25th anniversary this year.

Becker and Stull’s group monitors territory from Park Avenue east to Pacific Avenue, and south from 56th to 64th streets, encompassing around 300 homes.

Organizing neighborhoods was one of the first projects taken on by Safe Streets in the summer of 1989, and it continues to be a main form of community outreach for the nonprofit.

It trains volunteers to become the eyes and ears of police by reporting crimes and suspicious activity to authorities.

Becker and Stull work on a rotating schedule with other volunteers in the neighborhood, going on patrol several times a week when their turn comes up every three to four weeks.

Stull, 72, says they often look for broken windows, open doors, abandoned cars, overgrown vegetation or piles of trash.

The retired special-education teacher says he’s become familiar with the alleys and roads, so he can tell when things are out of the ordinary.

Becker says the patrols are about having a presence in the community, deterring criminals and reaching out to fellow neighbors.

He rolls down his truck window and introduces himself to Asenath Monroe, a neighbor concerned about tenants in a rented house up the hill.

She fears they’re taking poor care of their property and bringing suspicious people into the neighborhood.

Becker listens, hands her a Safe Streets pamphlet and invites her to the monthly neighborhood meeting to talk about her concerns.

While on patrol, it’s easy for the two volunteers to look back on how far the community has come since the late 1980s, when a wave of gang members from Southern California washed into Tacoma.

Stull points to a house on the corner. For years it was abandoned and boarded up, with overgrown weeds and vegetation, he said.

On this day in August, the lawn is mowed and children play on a swing, enjoying the last bit of evening sun.

“It looks pretty good now, we haven’t had any concerns,” Stull said.

It’s a common story in the neighborhood.

Becker points to another house, a two-story structure with a mint-green paint job and white trim.

“It has a long history here,” he said.

The house was used as a brothel, he said, attracting prostitutes and causing problems in the neighborhood. Now, it’s a multi-family building, with kids playing on the sidewalk and parents sitting nearby.

Although Safe Streets teaches patrol volunteers to call police and keep their distance when they witness a crime, Becker says it’s easier said than done.

He recalls an incident years ago as he was preparing for his neighborhood patrol. A man was sprinting down the street followed by his neighbor, who was running barefoot while screaming at the man.

The man being chased had just crashed into a neighbor’s car and was fleeing the scene, Becker said.

Becker took action, tracking the suspect across Pacific Avenue. He tackled him to the ground outside a Mexican grocery store and waited while police arrived.

“He turned and goes ‘Get off me, old man,’ and that made me mad,” he said.

Except for that incident, Becker says he and Stull make sure to call in criminal activity from a distance and let the authorities handle unruly situations.

Becker was introduced to Safe Streets by his wife, Rose, who has volunteered with the organization for 23 years.

Rose Becker has lived in the neighborhood nearly four decades, since she bought the house she and Don live in on 60th Street. She was 19 years old.

Rose, who raised two sons in the neighborhood, says she began to notice the emergence of drug houses and other crime in the early ‘90s.

“Before the drug houses, it was a really good neighborhood,” she said.

She formed a block watch group in 1990, creating phone trees and holding barbeques and ice cream socials.

“We started to do our own thing,” Rose said. “I was already doing that, but didn’t know about Safe Streets.”

A police officer friend who was working with the organization got her involved.

Using the tactics they learned from Safe Streets, the Beckers were able to help shut down two drugs houses on their block, one behind their house and another across the street.

In 1993, the couple spent months gathering license plate numbers and information on peak times of activity at the drug house across the alley.

“Usually Monday was delivery day, so Monday and Tuesday there was a lot of activity,” Rose said. “They all had California plates.”

The customers would park in the alley and be in and out in 3 to 4 minutes.

Don Becker and a few other neighbors confronted the suspected drug dealer at a block barbeque.

“We go, ‘we know what you’re doing in that house; you are going to move, right?’” he recalled.

The man was gone within two weeks.

A similar situation occurred years later in a rented house across the street. Rose says a neighbor had gotten mixed up in hard drugs, and was inviting criminals into the neighborhood.

They began to find needles in the alley, garbage in the yard and petty crime on the block.

“There was trouble here every weekend,” she said. “I didn’t feel safe anymore.”

They reached out to Safe Streets for help, working closely with police to set up a block meeting.

The landlord forced the neighbor out after hearing concerns aired at the meeting, Don Becker says.

Rose Becker says Safe Streets has helped bring neighbors together to act on crime and improve the quality of life for all.

“I think that’s what Safe Streets helped do, is unite us and bring us together in numbers,” she said.

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