Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Citizens' Anticrime Group Slammed for Tactics

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Citizens' Anticrime Group Slammed for Tactics

Article excerpt

A PROGRAM that has become a national model for fighting crime at the grass-roots level is coming under fire for allegedly targeting African-Americans and setting neighbor against neighbor.

The Oakland, Calif.-based group, Safe Streets Now, has won plaudits for taking to court landlords who allow their buildings to become crack houses. But a number of lawsuits against small property owners, many of them blacks, have some community activists up in arms.

Ask Charles Mosser about Safe Streets Now founder Molly Wetzel, and he says: "Molly is great." As a landowner, he watched property values fall as a nearby apartment building turned seedy. With Ms. Wetzel's help, he took the building's owner to court and won.

But ask Gwen Hardy, a leader of People United for a Better Oakland, about Wetzel's organization, and one gets a different answer. Safe Streets Now, she says, "isn't concerned about the community as a whole."

Big landlords have the resources to clean up their property, Ms. Hardy says, but "it seems that it's persons of color whose homes are being taken from them because of alleged drug dealing. How much proof" do they have?

For her part, Wetzel says legal action is the last resort. Of the hundreds of cases her group has taken up, many involve elderly women whose adult children steal their Social Security checks to buy drugs. Before filing suit, Safe Streets Now contacts the owners to request they stop the criminal activity in the building.

"They either get to a rehabilitation center or get out of the neighborhood," Wetzel says. The number of requests for police assistance tends to go down, she says, after blocks have evicted such people. Safe Streets Now cooperates with Oakland police and files monthly reports on complaints of alleged drug houses.

Safe Streets Now began in 1989 when Wetzel mobilized neighbors in Berkeley, Calif. …

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