August 23, 2007 — Vol. 43, No. 2
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Nightly patrols reduce crime in Chinatown

Jin-ah Kim

Under overcast skies one recent Friday afternoon, Gilbert Ho and a half-dozen people came together near the famed Chinatown Gate. Armed only with walkie-talkies and blue vests reading “Chinatown Crime Watch,” the group started to walk the streets near the Gate, beginning their daily voluntary vigil to keep Chinatown safe.

“We are the eyes and ears of police officials,” said Ho, a 49-year-old Chinese American.

Every night for a little over two years, Ho has come home from his day job as an information technology professional at a law firm and hit Chinatown’s streets to walk with the crime watch. Night after night, Ho and the other community members keep their eyes peeled for criminal activity, using their walkie-talkies to inform local police at the first sign of trouble.

Ho says that it’s the ceaseless dedication that sets Chinatown’s crime watch apart from those in other communities.

“I know everyone has his or her own life and job,” he said, in halting English. “Most of the crime watches I’ve seen in other neighborhoods, people come out once in a while, and they don’t come out when it is too cold or too hot. We are here day and night, rain, snow or sleet. Ninety degrees, we’re here. Minus degrees, we have more jackets and hats. We’re here every day.”

“It is all about commitment,” he added.

Since Chinatown residents Ho, his wife Debbie and Michael Wang started the crime watch on May 2, 2005, the number of people committing their time to the Chinatown Crime Watch, which patrols the neighborhood from 4:30 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. daily, has gradually grown. The watch now boasts more than 60 volunteers.

Their efforts are part of a nationwide citizen-centered movement that aims to reduce local crime and increase residents’ sense of peace, safety and security in their neighborhoods. Judi Wright, director of the Boston Police Department’s Neighborhood Crime Watch Unit, said that more than 600 crime watch units are currently listed as active in Boston.

Even so, Chinatown’s model stands out as unique because neighborhood residents and community leaders literally walk around the city every day in cooperation with BPD officers. Other watches consist of weekly or monthly town meetings, phone tree networks and irregular patrols conducted on an as-needed basis.

In fact, according to City Councilor Michael Flaherty, the Chinatown model has proven so successful that several neighborhoods in the Northeast have begun to emulate it, with residents starting to patrol their communities all dressed in matching colored hats.

As one of Boston’s most densely populated residential districts and an area through which many people routinely commute, watch leaders — who started the nightly walks in response to frequent robberies targeting young females — say Chinatown has a high potential for criminal activity.

“South Station is right there. People come in by train and stop here. Sometimes, homeless people lie down in the street,” said Michael Wang, 55, organizer and leader of the Chinatown watch.

Police officer Vinnie Stancato patrols the area including Chinatown, South Station and Boston Common. He said that greater traffic on weekends, when the neighborhood becomes crowded with people visiting and shopping, increases the need to keep a watchful eye on the streets.

“People from the Asian community all over the state come here to shop. Stores are crazy. Parking is crazy. It requires a little bit more attention,” he said.

Stancato started his current patrol when the Chinatown Crime Watch was first established. He said that when he first came to Chinatown, the area had issues with drugs, alcoholism and transients coming from two nearby shelters and South Station.

These days, he said, “those problems don’t exist anymore.”

“We have very, very little crime down here right now, because they walk around, I walk around,” he said, pointing at the blue-vested volunteers. “Nobody stops here anymore. We don’t allow here anyone drinking and selling drugs. I enforce the law, these guys protect the neighborhood, and I protect them.”

Michael Wang said that the crime watch has slowed down due to a significant decrease in crime in Chinatown over the past two years — a 20 percent overall crime reduction and a 44 percent reduction in robberies, according to Boston Police Captain Bernard O’Rourke, commander of District A-1, which includes Chinatown. In addition to the regular police beat, Wang now hires one extra police detail two days a week, instead of every night as he did in the beginning, and the crime watch now starts at 5:30 p.m., one hour later than it used to.

While walking around Oxford Street, Gilbert Ho conversed in Chinese with several local business owners, including 53-year-old Wilson Wang, no relation to Michael, who owns the Vinh Sun BBQ Restaurant on Beach Street and the Sun Sun Company grocery store on Oxford Street.

Wilson Wang has lived in Chinatown for the last 50 years, and he has borne witness to the neighborhood’s transformation.

“The reputation of Chinatown was the ‘Combat Zone’ for the last 40, 50 years,” said Wang, continuously exchanging greetings with passersby.

During the construction of the Southeast Expressway and Tufts-New England Medical Center in Chinatown from the 1950s through the ’70s, city officials designated an area adjacent to Chinatown as Boston’s “red light district,” also known as the Combat Zone, a neighborhood where prostitution and other sex industry businesses flourished.

Although the Combat Zone virtually disappeared by the 1990s due to the expansion of Chinatown, Wilson Wang said its remains still existed even two years ago.

“Before the crime watch, a lot of people were afraid of coming here, but now you see people willing to come to the town to shop and dine … It is a long-term benefit for local businesses,” said Wilson Wang.

In response to the Chinatown Crime Watch’s success, Councilor Flaherty called a hearing in May to discuss the possibility of replicating the neighborhood’s model across the city.

At the hearing, Flaherty said that it is necessary to “promote the Chinatown Crime Watch model and support it financially,” calling on the city to use the $5 million left over in the city’s snow removal budget to finance neighborhood crime watch patrols based on Chinatown’s model.

City Councilor Sam Yoon, who took part in the Chinatown watch two years ago, said it is “a great idea to highlight something working well for the city.”

“There is a lot of power in that, just having that presence … and communicating to shoppers, residents and business owners that we are here to help and promote the safety in this district,” he said.

But while many were in favor of replicating the model, others remained unconvinced.

BPD crime watch director Wright pointed out that most neighborhoods are different from Chinatown, with its commercial and business districts, and consequential high crime factors.

“You have to tailor the solution to the neighborhood and to its problem. Whether or not it will work for West Roxbury, I can’t tell you,” she said.

Officer Stancato agreed that the Chinatown Crime Watch is not something that can be replicated simply.

“Around here, problems are different — a little bit more violent, a little bit more territorial, a little harder for unarmed citizens to push along,” he said. “Most of all, it requires a very dedicated group of people.”

It also requires money. Flaherty expressed concern that the Chinatown watch’s hardworking volunteers waste time “digging in the wrong pockets by knocking on doors to solicit money and advocate for more funding.”

Michael Wang acknowledged that with the exception of funding from the Chinatown Charitable Trust, the watch depends largely on donations from residents and business owners. He said that there have not been any changes in the group’s funding since the May hearing.

Despite the watch’s limited financial resources, the spirit of volunteerism has continued to bring manpower to Chinatown — even from other neighborhoods.

For the past six months, Cambridge resident Josh Conway, 31, comes to Chinatown every Friday night to take part in the crime watch.

“I have belonged to Wah Lum [Kung Fu of Boston] martial arts school in Chinatown for six years,” he said, explaining that he began joining the crime watch because he “wanted to be more involved with the community.”

As Stancato sees it, that openness and belief in the importance of community have made the Chinatown Crime Watch such a success.

“[The Chinatown] Crime Watch did an unbelievable, admirable job — this small group of people, the stores that pay attention to them, and the merchants around here who support them,” he said.

“It’s a community effort, and it has worked very well. The best thing we can do for them is to back them up and support them.”

Members of the Chinatown Crime Watch surround Boston police officer Vinnie Stancato (center), who patrols the area including Chinatown, South Station and Boston Common. The Chinatown Crime Watch, formed in May 2005, patrols the neighborhood from 5:30 p.m. to 10:30 p.m., and has helped reduce Chinatown crime by 20 percent and robberies by 44 percent. (Jin-ah Kim photo)

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