Springtime in Westwood
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Springtime in Westwood

What can be done to stem juvenile crime in Dayton’s most troubled neighborhood?

Jeremiah Hudson Davis is 9 years old. His favorite superhero is The Incredible Hulk. He likes to watch Teen Titans cartoons.

He has a routine when gunfire erupts outside of his house.

“Any time they shoot, my mom yells, ‘Everybody get on the ground.’ She’s like, ‘Everybody stay low.’ And everybody be crawling around the house,” he said, noting the shots have been less frequent in the past year or so.

On a recent, chilly Wednesday afternoon, as Jeremiah and a handful of friends shot hoops on West Second Street, the only sounds were children’s laughter punctuated by the clang of basketball on metal rim.

Dayton Police Sgt. John Riegel had stopped his cruiser to take a few shots with them.

“Close your eyes,” Riegel noted, “and it’s any street we grew up on.”

Open eyes, though, would notice that the net-less basketball hoop hangs over a collapsing garage behind an abandoned house.

Directly across the narrow street, a telephone pole is strung with weather-worn teddy bears and a deflated balloon, marking the spot where a man was found shot to death in October. Jeremiah and his friends pay it little notice.

“They’re still kids. It’s just tough at times to grow up (here),” Riegel said.

The Westwood connection

Jeremiah and his friends live in Dayton’s Westwood neighborhood, where statistics show social ills such as poverty and drugs ensnare too many young children into becoming either criminals, or the victims of crime.

The numbers:

• Half of the children from Montgomery County incarcerated in the Ohio Department of Youth Services reside in the Westwood ZIP code.

• One-third of the felony arrests made in Dayton in the first quarter of2014 were juvenile repeat offenders from the Westwood area.

• In 2013, 249 kids between ages 12 and 14 from the Westwood neighborhood committed aggravated arson, aggravated robbery or felonious assault.

• Of the roughly 900 kids on probation in Montgomery County, about 13 percent come from the ZIP code, though it accounts for only 6 percent of the juvenile population.

“We gave the first name, and they gave the last name,” he said. “Then there’s this Westwood connection, and it’s like, ‘Crap, all these kids are coming through Westwood one way or the other.’ ”

Dayton Police Sgt. John Riegel

“When we went back and looked at the numbers, we learned a lot of the kids were coming from this area,” said Darlene Powell, director of Montgomery County Juvenile Probation Services.

City and county officials say the numbers were no huge surprise. Powell has worked in the county roughly 30 years. Sgt. Riegel has worked the streets ofwest Dayton more than a decade.

Riegel said the scale of the problem clicked when officers would talk to probation officers about children they’ve handled.

“We gave the first name, and they gave the last name,” he said. “Then there’s this Westwood connection, and it’s like, ‘Crap, all these kids are coming through Westwood one way or the other.’ ”

So the city and county partnered with Wright State University and the University of Dayton last year to secure a $500,000 federal safe neighborhoods grant. The goal: find warning signs that can identify children starting down the wrong path, and find ways to steer them back.

“This isn’t mainstream stuff,” said Jack Dustin, professor of urban affairs and geography at Wright State and lead researcher on the grant. “We’re trying to use what we think are things that will really work.”

Dustin’s job is to delve into the crime numbers and stats and try to find patterns to help them identify kids on the cusp.

He gives an example: Imagine Tom Jones. Tom is sitting in the Lebanon Correctional Institution. If we look back over his record we can see he hadrun-ins with the law that began when he was 13 or 14, as well as other problem sat home.

“Maybe if we had paid closer attention, way back there when he was doing those minor things we could have given him more attention and kept him in the straight course and he wouldn’t be in Lebanon today,” Dustin said.

“Two friends together can make some poor decisions."

Darlene Powell, Montgomery County Juvenile Probation director

The research is ongoing, but those in the field know there are warning signs.

“When kids start truanting from school, that’s an indicator there might be things going on,” Powell said.

When Riegel starts seeing them — when they first turn to crime — is often with home burglaries, often as young as 10 or 11. They’ll kick in a back door and run out with a television or video game system. Sometimes they’ll find agun in one of the houses.

“From there we find it will oftentimes escalate to violent crimes,” he said,getting worse as they get older. They usually don’t get into dealing drugs or gun-slinging until their late teens.

Riegel, Powell and others said most of the kids first entering the system are good kids. Often they get caught up with a peer, a “ringleader” who has family members dealing drugs or maybe in prison and encourages the others to act out.

“Two friends together can make some poor decisions,” Powell said.

The children in Westwood are surrounded by poverty and crime.

The utility pole on West Second Street isn’t the only one adorned with plush animals, marking a violent crime. A few blocks down on Brooklyn Avenue, an oversized stuffed bear holding a purple heart is slumped over along with other toys heaped on the front porch of a duplex.

There, two people were killed and one was injured in a shootout in January that police believe was drug related.

Riegel drove his police SUV up and down the residential streets. He pointed out sidewalks and houses where people were found dead, as well as numerous busted and possibly active drug houses. He sat in front of a house where numerous neighbors had complained about dealing and pointed out the cameras andother fortifications around the home.

A man on the porch glared at the police car.

“Drugs are always the number one complaint in the neighborhood,” Riegel said, noting that people from all over the county come to Dayton to buy drugs, especially heroin.

But crime rarely exists in a vacuum. According to the grant application:

• Nearly 39 percent of families in Westwood live below the poverty level,compared to 12 percent for the county as a whole.

• Twenty-two percent of Westwood high school students drop out of school,compared to 4.8 percent citywide.

• Nearly 29 percent of the housing in the neighborhood is vacant, more than twice the countywide average.

Riegel stopped his car in an alley behind a string of vacant homes on Lorenz Avenue. The plywood over the back door of a two-story house was torn off. There were fresh tire marks in the back yard.

“Dayton police. Anyone in there?” Riegel announced as he checked the home for squatters.

All he found was crumbled plaster from the collapsing ceiling, torn walls where people likely were looking for copper wires, and a scrawl on an upstairs bathroom door where someone wrote, “I need my money.”

Such vacant houses depress property values, invite arson and give criminals space to work where once families lived.

“Kids opened Christmas presents right here,” mused Riegel, standing next to the hearth.

As principal of the Westwood PreK-8 School, Akisha Shehee sees the children of Westwood every day, and knows the environment they’re growing up in. Kids come to her about their parents going to jail, or other issues at home.

“We listen to them, and we provide support to them and ask them what we can do,” she said.

Part of the Westwood initiative will look at opening up the Westwood school to kids after the school day, offering activities and using the school as sort of a community center.

“Providing a place where they can just be kids,” Shehee said.

Powell said it’s important to provide programming during these afternoon hours, when children tend to be unsupervised; often their parents aren’t even home.

For children on probation, the safe neighborhood grant may provide programs like one currently at Mount Enon Baptist Church. Kids on probation are picked up at school or home and taken there and given dinner, activities and behavioral therapy to help them learn how to make better life decisions. The program runs from 3 to 9 p.m.

But talking to the kids is not enough. Officials say the parents often need drug and behavior counseling, help with social services and even some parenting training.

“We try to offer as many services as we can, not just to the kids but to the family as well,” Powell said.

Shehee said children learn anger and aggression from family members. They need good role models, she said, both in and out of their home. She drives a shiny, black Mercedes-Benz. And loves when the kids ask her how she got such anice car.

“I say I went to school for a lot of years and worked very hard,” she said.

Shehee said she refuses to give up on these kids because she was a problem kid herself.

“I have to be there for these kids like somebody was there for me.”

While the plan is still being formulated, the grant lists several measures that would spell success, such as reduced juvenile arrests and school suspensions. Researchers also will be monitoring social media such as Twitter and Facebook to see if people are responding to the initiatives, whether they feel anything is changing.

But any large success will be made up of small victories. Riegel drove to the intersection of Kilmer and West Second, near the edge of Westwood. The area was once filled with drug houses, prostitution and violence.

New houses on large lots now sit where scores of old homes were torn down.In the setting sun, Sherita Brown minded a small hibachi grill filled with chicken drumsticks and shrimp while her three young children played and watched cartoons inside.

“I really didn’t want to move back, but it was the new house,” said Brown,explaining how she had lived in Centerville but moved to her current house in2012. It’s basically a rent-to-own with a mortgage of $591 a month for a new two-story.

She’s still on the fence on whether she’ll stay. She has had problems with crime. Shortly after she moved in her back door was kicked open when she wasn’t home. She bought a security alarm and the next time they were caught: three kids, ages 9, 11 and 12.

She said the kids were breaking into houses when their parents weren’t home.

“I think (the neighborhood needs) more activities for the kids, to keep them out of trouble,” she said.

There is a community center near Westwood at the old Roosevelt High School. People in the community say it has been a great asset.

But young Jeremiah Davis and his friends said their parents want them playing closer to their home. None of the children have had any trouble with the law.

Joe Watson, one of the kids’ grandparents, said that’s where the residents should focus their efforts: close to home.

As Sgt. Riegel spoke to the kids, Watson came out and asked how he could buy the vacant lot next to them. He wants to turn it into a community garden. In addition to improving access to healthy food, he said dopeheads won’t steal anything from a garden, because they can’t sell it for money.

Watson has lived in the neighborhood for 43 years. He remembers back when people could walk to the nearby Delphi plant for work … and before they closed the closest grocery store, theater, bowling alley, skating rink and so on.

“When I was growing up, we had something to do,” he said.

When asked about his neighborhood, Watson talks about two blocks. On those two blocks, he said, they have a neighborhood watch. Younger people help shovel older people’s driveways in the winter. They try to keep up their yards.

“We take care of this block right here,” he said, noting that if everyone did that, the neighborhood would fix itself.

Sgt. Riegel asked Jeremiah and his friends what they want to be when they grow up. Answers included zoologist, police officer, surgeon, Navy sailor and professional cyborg. Jeremiah said he likes where he lives.

“People need to clean up after themselves and stuff, and stop all the fighting,” he said. “It could use a little more peace, but overall it’s great.”