Photograph by Curtis Cartier
He's Got A Point: Lower Broadway watchdog Helbard Alkhassadeh says calling the local constabulary actually works.
One Santa Cruz neighborhood's crusade to clean up crime.
By Curtis Cartier
Helbard Alkhassadeh has a simple mantra when it comes to crime prevention in his neighborhood. "Snitch!" he says. "If you see something wrong, call the cops. Don't wait. Don't try and be a hero. Just snitch every time."
Alkhassadeh lives on the 200 block of Broadway Avenue, a lively stretch of fractured pavement, colorful Victorians and wandering prostitutes in Santa Cruz's de facto red light district, also known as Lower Ocean. He's used his "snitch first, ask questions later" approach, along with face-to-face communication and a little help from the Internet, to unite a small group of residents against thugs and drug dealers. Through their efforts he's seen a noticeable drop in neighborhood crime.
"I just starting talking to people," he says matter-of-factly. "It turned out pretty much everyone I talked to was really cool. They were sick of the crime too but didn't really know what to do about it. So we just started calling the police--for everything. I got to know the officers, they got to know me. Pretty soon people were learning that if you deal drugs or break into homes on this street, the cops will show up, so they should take it somewhere else."
A commercial photographer by trade and a Lower Ocean resident of three years, Alkhassadeh first made his mark as a local crime watcher when he launched www.stabsantacruz.com. Part hard news disseminator, part comedic time waster, the website features news stories, voting forums and even T-shirts on the topic of stabbings in Santa Cruz County. Now, with last week's unveiling of www.thelowerbroadway.com, Alkhassadeh has used his newfound smarts to create a site that keeps track of neighborhood crusades, such as installing new stop signs, and police reports, such as how many prostitutes have been arrested in the last week. He's hoping the site will be a place where people can keep up-to-date on the neighborhood and submit tips, concerns and ideas for making it a better place (and maybe buy one of the spiffy "lower broadway: we fight!" T-shirts, onesies or thongs for sale).
"My goal is to get the people that live in Lower Broadway to be more involved and to get the people who don't live here to know that we are committed to improving the area and they should respect it," he says. "It's all about communication."
Alkhassadeh is not the only one who has noticed a positive change over the last two years. Santa Cruz Police spokesman Zach Friend says he's seen an improvement from his end too. Indeed, the Police Department's recently released 2008 "crime map" shows a small bubble of reduced assaults, robberies and burglaries on Alkhassadeh's block. Friend contends that "snitching" is exactly what led to the neighborhood's improvement.
"Lower Ocean is an area with a consistent amount of drug crime, prostitution and some gang activity. We've definitely seen a downward trend in certain crimes, however," he says. "What [Alkhassadeh] is doing by encouraging people to call the cops is precisely what he should be doing. If we don't get called we don't know where to send our resources. No one should ever feel they are burdening the police. That's what we're here for."
Alkhassadeh routinely shows up at City Council meetings to beseech councilmembers to change speed limits or paint curbs. For neighbors who are less inclined to keep track of a website or organize community meetings, his initiative has made it easier for neighborhood concerns to find their way to the proper ears. Ed Bailey, a veteran Lower Ocean resident of 17 years, lives two doors down from Alkhassadeh. He says that on weekend nights he still sees groups of people shouting and occasionally knocking over trash cans, but he admits that "things have gotten better." "We'll always have problems down here," he adds from behind the screen door of his vibrant Victorian cottage. "Helbard has really stepped up, though."
For others like Caesar Reyes, a "former gangbanger"-turned-fretful father, anyone who makes the street a safer place for his 13-year-old son is a saint in his book.
"I still see prostitutes walking down here," says Reyes from outside his sister's house on the corner of Broadway and Campbell Street. "I saw many more two years ago, though. Now I just call the police."
Despite his relative success, Alkhassadeh harbors no illusions that his neighborhood is any kind of paradise. For every drug dealer, gang member or prostitute he reports to police, he knows another will eventually creep back. But as long as he's got a window to look out of and a phone on which to dial 911, he says he'll keep making his block the most uncomfortable stretch of Broadway Avenue that any criminal can walk down.
"I don't care if you sell drugs or rob people," he says. "Just don't do it in my neighborhood."
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