Tucson police are working to usher in the return of neighborhood watch groups and community collaboration, in response to decreased resources in police departments across the country.
Jason Huaraque said he’s never been an “activist type of person.” But when he saw his neighborhood, Barrio Santa Cruz, being overrun by homeless people, it was unsafe for children and kept neighbors in uncomfortable isolation. Huaraque and his neighbors knew that to reclaim their neighborhood, they had to take action.
Families have lived in Barrio Santa Cruz for generations. The neighborhood is located close to downtown, is about a mile wide, has a unique, rural landscape and a long history. The homeless are drawn to it because it’s hidden, Huaraque said, and at one point, there were 16 homeless camps, either tents or shopping carts, tucked away on residential, run-down streets. About two years ago, Huaraque and his neighbors decided to resurrect their neighborhood association and have since seen tremendous transformation.
Huaraque spoke to the Star during a Getting Arizona Involved in Neighborhoods event last month at Mission Manor Elementary School.
GAIN is an annual event held in collaboration with neighborhood associations and police departments across the state, but its efforts extend throughout the year.
Huaraque talked about the progress his neighborhood has made in terms of safety and community, much of which he said is due to collaboration between the city, for things like parks and streetlights and roads. But the Tucson Police Department has also been a go-to resource for clearing out crime in his neighborhood.
“I think for a long time we felt that the city didn’t care. Because we didn’t speak up and nothing was being done. As soon as we spoke up, everything just changed,” said Huaraque.
Over the last three years, there’s been a “concerted effort” toward police and community relationships, especially with neighborhoods, said Tucson Police Lt. Steven Simmers.
“Our role as police has expanded — even throughout my career — as far as what we’ve been asked to do. Our resources, they’ve lessened. That’s not going to change anytime soon,” said Simmers, who has been with TPD since 2001.
Simmers said that larcenies, burglaries, robberies and assaults are nearly 20% lower this year than last year, something that’s been unheard of throughout his career.
The population has grown by roughly 30,000 people in Simmers’ 18 years with TPD, and the city has always struggled with crime rate per capita compared to the rest of the state, he said.
Overall, there’s “more to do, less people to do it with,” said Simmers.
Tucson Police Sgt. William Corrales agrees: “If I could have a magic wand, I wish I had more resources,” he said at the GAIN event. “That’s why it’s so, so important to build relationships with the community. Schools, neighborhood associations, general businesses. Because they’re our eyes and ears.”
Both officers understand the importance of community engagement and collaboration. If there are conversations going on between neighborhoods and police officers, then solutions can be found, and trust can be built.
“We don’t want to over-police communities,” said Simmers. “The real danger in that is when the community feels like it’s against the police agency.”
In Huaraque’s neighborhood, residents got to meet officers who helped clean out the residential area and gave those in the homeless camps evacuation notices.
The residents of Barrio Santa Cruz have reclaimed their neighborhood. Huaraque now feels comfortable letting his kids cross the street to their grandmother’s house alone, neighbors have become actively involved in meetings and they’re once again able to use the park.
“Two years ago, before we started, nobody was going to the park because it wasn’t safe. You don’t want to take your kids to the park where there’s a grown man washing himself with the water fountain, and everyone’s doing their laundry, hanging out in the kid’s area,” Huaraque said. “Now there’s softball practice every night there, people playing basketball, they’re having parties on the weekends under the ramada.”
In October, the neighborhood hosted their second annual fiesta complete with food trucks, a car show, live music and over 500 attendees.
Sometimes the homeless return, said Huaraque, but the relationships that have been built between police and residents make the situation less overwhelming. Huaraque even has some of the officers’ personal phone numbers.
“When you take a problem to them, they find ways to get data on that to make it measurable and then they brainstorm,” said Huaraque.
With the data collected through interactions and calls, Simmers hopes to mine the data to figure out where the problems really are.
“When we identify those problems, it’s working with the community to figure out the solutions,” he said.
The relationships and outreach that police have with the community are just as important as responding to calls, Simmers said.
“We are ultimately public servants and working with the community only makes sense,” said Simmers.
Neighborhoods are also being innovative.
By revamping neighborhood watches and utilizing the online Nextdoor forum, neighborhoods are communicating and building networks of their own.
“The more active the community is, the better results we see,” said Simmers.
“You can get involved in such a simple way,” said Margie Mortimer, the secretary of Barrio Nopal. She sat across from Huaraque at the GAIN event, wearing a shirt with the word “UNITED” printed across the front.
“If I’m coming down my neighbor’s street and I see something unusual, I’ll report it,” said Mortimer, who has gotten comfortable reporting suspicious incidents to TPD. For a while, there were several break-ins that occurred in her neighborhood that wouldn’t have been identified if the residents had not communicated with one another. “That’s why you get to know who your neighbors are.”
Shayne Tarquinio is a UA journalism student and apprentice at the Star.