Andrew Lichtenstein for Al Jazeera America

Silver Patrol: Crime-fighting seniors on the beat look out for one another

Fed up with drugs, prostitution, volunteers coordinate with cops to monitor area in Bridgeport, Conn.

BRIDGEPORT, Conn. — Jean Smoak, a 70-year-old great-grandmother, made her way across the parking lot of her senior housing complex on a recent Friday night with her cane in hand, looking out for drug dealers and prostitutes.

The dealers, she said, cruise down Black Rock Avenue from Park Avenue in their “fancy sports cars” and stop by the lot’s entrance, where they reach out their car windows and exchange drugs for cash.

Smoak, a retired health care worker, said she’s fed up. She’s been jotting down license plate numbers, which the leader of her senior crime watch group plans to pass along to police.

“When they come and do that, other dangerous things can happen,” she said of the dealers. “The person that is waiting for it can come and steal money from people coming into the building.”

Smoak has also been taking notes on the dates and times she sees prostitutes on the corner, suspecting that some stray from a nearby homeless shelter.

“They come out with their Daisy Dukes and short skirts and tights,” she said, “and they’re standing there like they’re talking to themselves and they wait for a car to drive by.”

Smoak is one of 10 members on the Silver Crime Patrol at the Eleanor, a 63-unit, low-income senior housing complex on Park Avenue on Bridgeport’s west end.

In a city that has long struggled in its fight against violent crime, the volunteer program has strengthened the relationship between some of its most vulnerable residents and the police officers charged with protecting them. The patrol group at the Eleanor formed in January, but the Silver Crime Patrol program first launched 13 years ago at some other complexes. In addition to the Eleanor, there is a patrol of about two dozen members at Clifford House, a 100-unit, low-income senior housing complex on Main Street.

‘It’s kind of cool’

Carmelo Concepcion and Jean Smoak walk the grounds at night to report any suspicious activity to the police.
Andrew Lichtenstein for Al Jazeera America

Members at the Eleanor meet with police monthly in the activities room on the ground floor of the six-story building to discuss the latest crime trends. They’re told not to approach anyone.

“They make our jobs a little bit easier,” said Bridgeport police Officer Roger Reid, a 20-year department veteran, who works in the community services division and is the interim police liaison for the program.

“I think it gives them a sense of responsibility and respect from the community and me. It’s kind of cool. My mom’s getting of age, too, and I’m seeing how there’s a lot less for seniors.”

The volunteers are assigned ranks, with two captains leading the patrol, while the rest are lieutenants. At least one member lives on each of the top five floors, where there are residential units. The Eleanor is attached to the Franklin, a 48-unit building that houses veterans and homeless people, and patrol members have seen their share of action there.

Two months ago, Smoak, a lieutenant, saw motorcyclists racing down Garden Street, which runs parallel to the building. She notified Carmelo Concepcion, a captain, who called the police.

“They broke it up and we haven’t seen it since,” said Smoak, who patrols six days a week, roughly 20 minutes at a time.

Carmelo Concepcion sits in his apartment.
Andrew Lichtenstein for Al Jazeera America

One day in February, maintenance workers at the building left a snowblower outside and two young men stole it. Concepcion, a 68-year-old retired cook, gave a description of the men to police, who are still working to identify them. 

In March, a woman passed out drunk in her apartment, and her two young nephews were wandering aimlessly in the building. Concepcion called management, who reported it to state child welfare authorities. He knows who belongs at the building and who doesn’t, regularly keeping watch out his window.

“If you don’t come in with a good reason, I’ll take you to the office and we’ll talk to them,” he said, referring to management or the security guard on duty at night. “All the security in the building know me … If residents in the building see anything funny, they’ll call me — because they know Carmelo,” he added with a smile.

‘They’re not cops’

Domica Skipworth, the resident service coordinator for the building, who coordinates the patrol, said she reminds the volunteers not to intervene if they see something suspicious.

“Their safety is important,” she said. “If they see something in action, they’re not supposed to react on that. They’re not cops.”

The patrol has benefited from some instruction from police, who led a class last month on how to give a proper statement if they witness a crime. Members share safety tips with residents, reminding them not to show wads of cash, take only what they plan to spend when they visit the corner store and use the buddy system.

Mary Spain, in her motorized wheelchair, monitors the parking lot with Jean Smoak.
Andrew Lichtenstein for Al Jazeera America

Mary Spain, a 76-year-old retired newspaper mail clerk and lieutenant in the group, patrolled outside on a recent night around 8:30 in her battery-powered wheelchair.

“I have a walker too,” she said.

Spain makes an effort to check on residents with medical issues by calling them on the telephone or knocking on their door.

“During the day, we just check the neighbors are well and have everything they need and everyone’s not in and out, in and out,” she said. “Some of them can’t hardly get around because they have arthritis.”

Spain’s granddaughter, 32-year-old Shavonne Davis of Bridgeport, who was visiting that night, said the patrol keeps the seniors active.

“It gives them something to look forward to,” Davis said, adding that she wouldn’t mess with the patrol.

“They can be pretty feisty,” she said. “They mean what they say and they say what they mean.”

Sense of security

Patricia Carter, 65, a resident who depends on a motorized wheelchair, played spades around 9 o’clock that night in the activities room, where other seniors were watching professional wrestling on TV. Carter said she has felt safer with the patrol around.

“We’re a senior citizen complex with a lot of elderly to be preyed on,” she said. “People can jump us and rob us and what not.”

The latest mystery around the complex: Who has been turning off the lights every night on the fourth floor?

Smoak and other patrol members are on the case.

"Someone keeps cutting the light off, so this is what we’ve been watching lately,” Smoak said. “These are elderly people in here and there’s young people coming in and out visiting. Maybe there’s a reason they’re cutting the light off.”

She hopes the patrol will serve as a deterrent.

“Even our residents that might have been doing something they shouldn’t have done, now they’re more aware that someone’s watching them.”

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