brightwood leading the way in neighborhood action

Brightwood | Speaking of Springfield | Springfield, MA

brightwood leading the way in neighborhood action

In 2009, gang members with semiautomatic weapons strapped to their backs rode around on motor scooters and sold drugs in the open. It was not unusual to hear gunshots or to learn about yet another robbery at the local gas station. The area was littered with gang graffiti. Two homicides occurred.

Three years later, all that has changed in Springfield’s Brightwood neighborhood, where children now play outside and mothers push strollers along quiet streets. The improvements began when two state troopers returning from Iraq saw that the counterinsurgency techniques they used as members of a Green Beret unit could be adapted to a war zone on city streets.

“Gang members and drug dealers work the same way as insurgents,” says Trooper Michael Cutone, who, along with fellow trooper and Iraq veteran Thomas Sarrouf, drafted a program called C3 policing, or Counter Criminal Continuum, based on working with the local population to make an area inhospitable to criminal activity.

“Gangs move into areas where people are not going to report on them, where people feel imprisoned in their own homes,” Cutone says. “Gangs offer a sense of family. We want to show people that there are other opportunities.”

The troopers brought their ideas to a small group of residents who met Thursday mornings at the area’s hot spot, Edgewater Apartments, a low-income housing development at 101 Lowell St. that was often the site of drug deals.

At first it was a hard sell. However, thanks to the help of Springfield businessman Robert Bolduc, local organizations and service providers were encouraged to participate in the program. Since then, more and more local residents and activists have come around to their ideas, and now the meetings have grown to some 30 people a week out of a core group of 80. Springfield police, local business people and residents, landlords, government officials and representatives of community organizations attend the weekly meetings now led by Cutone and Deputy Chief John Barbieri of the Springfield Police Department.

To gain residents’ trust, troopers walked door-to-door in a seven-block area, passed out flyers and spoke on Spanish radio.

The meetings produced such ideas as text-a-tip, which allows people to anonymously send information to the police.

Jose Claudio, director of community development at the New North Citizens’ Council, assembled a group of “street leaders” who gather information and report suspicious activities to the police. They also knock on doors and tell people that if they need it, help is available.

“We have seen residents coming to meetings and getting involved,” he says. “It’s about residents taking possession of their neighborhood.”

Karen Pohlman, a nurse practitioner who works at Baystate Medical Center’s Brightwood Health Center, proposed a “walking school bus” that now has three routes leading to the Brightwood Elementary School, with teachers and parents chaperoning children on their way to school.

She says that as a nurse, she is interested in the health benefits of walking to school. In addition, she says, “It brings neighbors outside to meet each other. And there is safety in numbers so bullying is limited.”

Gary Linsky, a paving company owner, began attending meetings after Cutone pulled him over for speeding and said he would rip up the ticket if Linsky attended a meeting. Now he is a regular, offering training in heavy equipment use and landscaping to at-risk young people to keep them off the streets.

Certain kinds of crime are down in the area around 101 Lowell St.: burglary and breaking and entering decreased about 30 percent from January 2009 to January 2012, and damage to property dropped about 17 percent, according to statistics provided by the Springfield police. But reports of stolen motor vehicles and weapons violations increased.

"Sometimes a spike is not necessarily an increase in crime," said Springfield police Sgt. Peter Albano. "It's more an instance of people reporting it." He said to get the best picture, you would have to ask the people who live there.

At a recent meeting where people went around the table with updates, Elines Berrios, whose father lives at Edgewater apartments, observed and listened. “I’m very happy everybody is working for the neighborhood. Now everything is quiet here,” she says.

The program was so successful in Brightwood that, this year, it was put into place in the North End’s Memorial Square area, with meetings held at the Sacred Heart Church rectory every other Thursday.

State Rep. Cheryl Coakley Rivera, who grew up in the North End, says programs like this work by focusing on small sections of the city. “This is how we’re going to save our city.”

Ronni Gordon |
Photo credit: Deborah Walsh