Janet Wilson remembers when a sense of community connected her neighborhood — a half-century ago when “everybody used to know everyone.”
She also recalls when it was later splintered by violent crime.
“I thought it was a war zone when I first moved over in 1991,” said Wilson, who lives near 11th and Estelle.
“I still hear gunshots, but not every day. Maybe once every six months. And I still call it in.”
Wilson’s assessment that violent crime has decreased in her neighborhood holds true for six connected quarter-square-mile sections of northeast Wichita, nestled between Ninth and 25th Streets from Hillside to Hydraulic. An Eagle analysis of the Wichita Police Department’s year-end crime data shows offenses classified as violent by the FBI — murder, rape, robbery and aggravated assault — were significantly lower in the area in 2012 than five years earlier.
“Historically there have been gangs and gang activities in parts of those areas,” said Capt. Rusty Leeds of the police department’s Patrol North bureau. After a series of crackdowns on drugs, gangs and racketeering in northeast Wichita in the 1990s and early 2000s, crime there dropped.
But police intervention, he said, is only a piece of the puzzle.
“We’re there for the public safety part. A lot of the other elements have to be there in order for law enforcement and citizens to keep the neighborhoods safe.”
The six sections — a few of nearly 500 crime reporting zones used by the police department to build police beats — are among those that saw the sharpest drop in violent crime citywide when comparing 2012 year-end crime totals with the same figures five years earlier.
The zones — 8, 9, 14, 15, 16 and 22 — are spread across police Beats 42, 43, 44 and 47.
When assessing violent incidents for the six crime-reporting zones combined, figures show aggravated assaults were down by 10 or more each year from 2008 (135 reported) to 2012 (66 reported). Robberies also generally dipped year-to-year, with a slight increase (five) reported only between 2010 and 2011.
Rapes fluctuated slightly, with between six and 11 reported annually from 2008 to 2012.
Of the five years studied, murders were highest in 2008, with six reported; no murders occurred in the zones in both 2010 and 2012.
When asked to speak on violent crime in the area, Leeds said gang violence has decreased slightly, too, for the same time period.
The zones recorded a combined total of 190 violent crimes in 2008 and a total of 89 violent crimes in 2012.
In 2008, Zone 16, bordered by Hillside and Grove, from 13th to 17th, saw the most violent crimes in the city, with 39 reported. Last year, there were 21.
Zone 14, directly northwest of Central and Hillside, came in second in 2008, with 36 violent crimes reported.
In 2012, the number dropped to seven.
Leeds said there is no single factor pushing violent crime down in those six northeast Wichita crime reporting zones.
It’s a blend of police-resident partnerships, diligent neighbors, reduced blight, revitalization, and crackdowns on gang activity, he said, prompting the apparent downward trend.“I think the combination of these things over time help contribute to long-term decreases,” Leeds said of violent crime.
“When we see decreases, that’s a good thing for everybody involved because people aren’t being victimized or are being victimized at a decreased rate.”
On a sunny afternoon last month, Officer Donielle Watson, a community policing beat coordinator for Beat 45, pulled into the parking lots of a vacant Boys and Girls Club building perched on the northeast corner of the 21st and Grove. It’s just one of the “eyesores,” he said, scattered across the six northeast Wichita crime reporting zones.
Elsewhere in the area, vegetation grown wild chokes empty lots. Trees need trimming. Ramshackle homes decay. Piles of rubbish and refuse lie about.
Neighborhood blight, he said, often drives criminal activity — including violent crime.
“I wish they would fix this up,” Watson said of the Boys and Girls Club. “This has sat here for three to four years. I don’t even know how long.”
At 14th and Kansas, Watson stopped to survey blocks of vacant, blighted buildings and fire-damaged homes. Here, drug activity has been a problem, he said.
“Look. Couches.” Watson pointed at sun-faded, tattered furniture left between two rundown brick apartments. He stepped around glass shards, mattresses and waist-high weeds.
But remarkable improvements are under way across the streets, Watson said. Behind a tall chain-link fence, clean new construction brightens the surrounding dilapidation. A sign advertises “The French Quarter,” a Mennonite Housing project.
“Eventually, they’ll level these,” Watson said of the rundown buildings, “and make them look like these.
“It’s a big difference, isn’t it?”
Other neighborhoods in the six crime-reporting zones are thriving, too.
At 10th and Grove, children laugh and play on a tidy playground surrounded nearby by tree-shaded houses.
Ninth and Madison used to be flooded with gangs in the early 1990s, Watson said.
Now, new housing is going up.
“That in itself has proven that crime rates can go down in different locations because of improvements,” said Wichita City Council member Lavonta Williams, who represents the central and northeast parts of the city.
“ … When the apartments went in, the crime statistics went down.”
She expects the same for the neighborhood at 14th and Kansas, when construction on those apartments wraps up.
“As we continue to bring in businesses and continue to clean and to make improvements, I think it’s going to make a difference.”
‘It’s up to us’
Residents in the area mostly say they don’t think daily about violent crime.
Blight. Vacancies. Drugs. Illegal dumping. Larceny.
Those are the immediate problems.
“They pick up whatever is not nailed down,” Wilson, president of the A. Price Woodard Neighborhood Association, said of theft on her block.
Isabelle Elder worries about illegal dumping, prevalent across the six zones.
“I don’t want my neighborhood to be a dumping ground,” said Elder, who heads the Murdock Neighborhood Association, which serves part of Zone 14. “…People dump on vacant lots and in the alleys.”
To combat criminal acts of all types, including violent offenses, some blocks have active neighborhood watch programs or are working to rejuvenate them.
“We do put up signs and watch the neighbors’ houses if we know that they are going to be away,” Elder said.
Wilson keeps a sharp eye on her street, too. One of her neighbors jots down tag numbers if vehicles look suspicious, she said; others peer through binoculars down their street, watching for crimes in progress.
In May, 69-year-old Shirley Hicks visited about 60 households, trying to drum up membership in the Power Neighborhood Association and share goings-on surrounding her home, near 21st and Grove.“When people start taking responsibility for their own actions and reporting suspicious activity, that results in lower crimes,” said Hicks, former president of the association, which serves 17th to 21st Streets between Hydraulic and Grove.
“I try to instill in people that it’s up to us. It’s not up to some organization downtown. It’s up to us.”
While on patrol that May afternoon, Watson stopped to play a few minutes of basketball with Carrie Johnson’s five children at their home north of Gordon Parks Academy, 2201 E. 25th St. North.
He is one of more than 40 community policing officers working across Wichita. Part of their job, Leeds of Patrol North said, is to address crime, blight and quality-of-life issues in neighborhoods.
“Pass me the ball!” Watson shouted. He attempted a jump shot and missed.
The children around him giggled.
Carrie Johnson, 30, said the relationships they have with officers is one of the factors that helps drive down neighborhood crime.
“The kids need more of that,” Johnson said of her children, who range in age from 5 to 12. “… It makes them know that they (police) are not just out when you’re in trouble. They’re there to support them and help them and interact with them.”
Back at his patrol car, Watson passed out shiny, silver stickers shaped like police shields to a group of chattering children gathered on the street corner.
How do I become a police officer, one little girl asked.
“You got to get good grades,” Watson replied.
The girl, about 10, puffed out her chest.
“I be getting A’s.” She grinned then darted home.
Later, as he drove away, Watson said: “That one little interaction will get me far if something happens over here. That’s what community policing is all about: being a liaison between the community and the police department.”
Contributing: Hurst Laviana of The Eagle