A Community Bands Together to Save Itself -- Part 2

Co-written with Jennifer Mrowka

Not so long ago, the Autumn Ridge apartment complex outside Memphis was a gang-controlled environment where police "couldn't arrest our way to a solution," acknowledges David Martello, deputy chief of investigative services of the Memphis Police Department. Today, though, a safe, neat community has emerged.

This transformation was the result of a "community collaborative," where government, nonprofit, philanthropic, business and community leaders, and the residents themselves came together to address a tough challenge.

In this, our second blog post on the success of the SAFEWAYS crime-prevention initiative at Autumn Ridge, we'll describe how the essential piece -- a secure environment -- came together. We'll also demonstrate why the collaborative concept is so effective in creating a place where people begin pitching in for the common good. In other words, a vibrant community coalesces when people start to know and watch out for each other.

To refresh readers' memories, community collaboratives are closely coordinated, long-term efforts involving many stakeholders to wrestle down big, complex social issues. Some 500 of these collaboratives exist today. But we've discovered only about a dozen that have achieved a 10 percent community-wide improvement, which is actually quite an ambitious metric against such intractable problems as low graduation rates, violence and teen pregnancy. One of those very few is Memphis's Operation Safe Community, of which Autumn Ridge's SAFEWAYS program is a part. With a $2.2 million federal grant to help expand SAFEWAYS and other special law enforcement operations, it's already linked to an 80 percent decrease in crime in the community.

It all began with a comprehensive initial assessment by University of Memphis faculty that helped focus the coordinated efforts of many players. Everyone became willing to participate in an innovative plan proposed by former Shelby County District Attorney General Bill Gibbons. Under its terms, residents signed a waiver agreeing to participate in a program aimed at keeping crime away. The police agreed to take a whole new approach with this "no trespass" program and other tactical interventions. The apartment management company launched the untried waiver system risking an exodus of tenants. The apartment owners financed a massive clean-up. Memphis's mayors and councilmen gave the plan critical political support. And, with the ongoing support of the university's Dr. Phyllis Betts, the collaborative enlisted a group of select nonprofit service providers that tailored their services to residents' self-determined needs.

As a result, no-trespassing signs, emblazoned with a SAFEWAYS logo, went up prominently, giving police the right to search or arrest non-residents when called in by residents and security staff. Residents also participated in monthly apartment management training and problem-solving meetings. That changed the whole dynamic of police interaction by giving residents the power to summon officers as allies.

Dubious at first, residents gradually developed trust over a series of community-wide meetings where they discussed this new way to interact with police. And, they became firm believers as evidence of the success of drug dealer-eviction efforts, counseling for abused women and youth-mentorship programs started to mount. Today, police are no longer outsiders. They greet and chat with residents, and are part of a security network that includes surveillance cameras that automatically read entering license plates and are connected to a "real time crime center," private guards and an active neighborhood watch.

This safe new Autumn Ridge is maintained by LEDIC Management Group. Its chief executive and president, Pierce Ledbetter credits the DA office's plan for the tremendous reduction in crime at Autumn Ridge. "My opinion is that the signs and enforcement and education of residents about the laws is most of the reason," Ledbetter says, adding, "80 percent of SAFEWAYS' effectiveness is from that alone."

Resident John Ailsworth agrees. "It feels safe because of the program. If anything happens, you call them and the police will be right there."

His wife, Letrice, calls the changes "a blessing to our family and also the whole community. It's all about the family and the people in the community." Thanks to SAFEWAYS, she says, "it's safe for our kids to go out and play." This summer, in fact, she is letting her children use the community pool without her supervision for the first time ever.

This freedom from fear has had a highly visible effect that we'll explore in our next blog post. Gone are boarded-up windows, overgrown shrubbery, graffiti and litter. Instead, what you see is a community with children at play and neighbors greeting one another.

Melody Barnes is the former Director of the White House Domestic Policy Council and CEO of Melody Barnes Solutions. Willa Seldon is a partner with The Bridgespan Group and Jennifer Mrowka is a consultant with The Bridgespan Group.