Kelly Waggonner is not a woman you’d anticipate running into near the intersection of El Cajon Boulevard and 50th Street at 3 a.m.
A family law attorney and mother of two, Waggonner might more plausibly be — in these wee hours of a Friday morning — in her home several blocks away, fast asleep.
But a few times a month, Waggonner hits these infamous streets as part of a volunteer tour of duty observing and reporting suspicious activity in her neighborhood.
When she’s on duty, Waggonner slaps a magnetic “TALMADGE PATROL” sign on the side of her gold GMC Yukon that identifies her as part of the patrol. Inside, she totes a red police-style light on her dashboard, a megaphone on the floor of the passenger seat and pepper spray in her seat console. She wears jeans, sandals and a navy T-shirt with the word TALCOP emblazoned in yellow on the back — short for Talmadge Citizens On Patrol. She keeps her windows rolled down so she can hear the noise of the street.
“Patrol Two to Patrol One, I’m on the 4400 block of Euclid,” Waggonner barks into her walkie-talkie like a seasoned detective, touching base with a pair of fellow patrollers, Vic Whitaker and James Quistorf. Her handset crackles as they return her hello.
Talmadge is a residential enclave, a neighborhood of ornamental historic gates and lanterns, and a range of notable architecture. It was named for the Talmadge sisters, glamorous silent movie stars in the early 1900s.
But the neighborhood’s adjacency to El Cajon Boulevard provides some startling contrasts. Bars and motels with flickering neon signs spot the main thoroughfares, with men and women stumbling in and out of them well into the night. The nearby apartment complexes and dark alleys attract problematic traffic, Waggonner said. Within the patrol boundaries — from 44th Street to 54th Street, from canyons to the north to El Cajon Boulevard — the neighborhood’s biggest challenges are car and home burglaries, drug activity and prostitution.
In fall 2007, neighbors grew exasperated with finding condoms and syringes in their alleys. They awoke on more than one morning to find a car on their street had been broken into, even under a streetlight. A spate of home break-ins, including thefts of Christmas decorations, sparked a series of emotional community meetings. The last straw for Waggonner: A burglar smashed through her next-door neighbor’s back door with an ax.
“We were all just, ‘Argh! We’re done!'” Waggonner said. “We’ve got to do something about this!”
So, after contemplating paying to hire their own security guards, they found a cheaper solution: themselves. Now, a crew of more than 30 volunteers ranging in age from their 30s to their 70s sign up for shifts to cover the night hours, mostly for weekends.
A Virtual Convening
In August 2008, we began a year-long series and special partnership between voiceofsandiego.org and the San Diego Foundation.
Every day we read and write stories about things that are going wrong in the San Diego region. We read about problems in the housing market. We find out about unaffordable transportation, problems with parks and the environment. We learn about fraud, malfeasance or apathy.
This is important. But it’s not all that is happening in San Diego. In communities all across the county, people are joining together to improve their corner of San Diego. They’re creating housing solutions. They are repairing public spaces. They’re figuring out how to make their communities more livable, more accessible and more prosperous.
The San Diego Foundation is sponsoring the year-long effort by voiceofsandiego.org reporters to find and tell the stories of these people. The writers will learn what particular problems the residents faced and how they decided to confront those challenges. What tools did they use? How did they work with governments, businesses and their neighbors to find solutions? And how did they succeed?
This is the essence of the stories: Residents facing a challenge in their neighborhood and overcoming it to create a better place for them and their fellow citizens.
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The patrollers don’t carry weapons and don’t intervene in suspicious situations, but are instead trained to be a presence, observing details and reporting to the on-duty police officers when they come across something that needs attention.
They’ve left a mark. Crime around Talmadge fell by a third between summer 2007 and summer 2008, according to San Diego Police Department stats.
Organized as a nonprofit corporation, the group of neighbors has launched programs to clean up graffiti, alerted city officials to dumped couches and trash, kept an eye on their neighbors’ homes when they go on vacation, installed lights in the alleys — and kept the nighttime watch for nearly two years.
“They kind of hold us all accountable for the services we’re supposed to be providing,” said Lt. Chuck Kaye, who’s seen the patrol’s impact for the past year from his post in the SDPD’s Mid City Division. “I’ve heard it referred to as Neighborhood Watch on steroids.”
The intersection of 50th Street and El Cajon Boulevard has been historically known for prostitution and open-air drug dealing, Kaye said. But with the combined forces of the Talmadge Patrol and a concerted effort of the patrolling police officers, the traffic in that area has been significantly reduced, Kaye said.
“The bad folks, the habitual offenders up there know the Talmadge Patrol,” Kaye said. “If they’re out and if they’re seen they’ll get a call from the cops.”
The patrol once came across four guys wearing dark clothes with hoods up, talking on cell phones as they shone flashlights into car windows. The patrollers frequently observe people casing cars and homes, looking for items to steal. The patrol once alerted police to a suspicious couple, and an officer ended up seizing a backpack full of cell phones and iPods.
They’ve called in someone stealing copper pipe from a plumber’s truck. They’ve painted over graffiti before the light of day ever hits it. They once alerted the police to a suspicious character who turned out to be an undercover SDPD officer.
Many of them skip a few hours of sleep to do their patrol shift and then go to work the next day. When Waggonner and some of her neighbors got the patrol started in 2007, they expected their action would draw more police resources to the neighborhood, and they could go back to sleep. To that extent, their plan has backfired, Waggonner said, wryly.
“We’ve all got lives; we’ve all got things we’d rather be doing at 3 a.m. in the middle of the night,” Waggonner said, laughing. “But now … the cops think, ‘Those people in Talmadge have things together.'”
That’s not to say officials knew exactly what to expect when they got the program running, Kaye said.
“In any department I think there’s going to be some skepticism with something like this — ‘Oh my goodness, we’ve got citizen vigilantes out there,'” he said. “But having met them and having actually been out there among them while they’re working, obviously they take what they do very seriously, and they know their role is observing and reporting and not intervening.”
Waggonner and the others are on a first-name basis with many of the officers who cover the night shifts in their neighborhoods. The neighbors have cell phone numbers for the officers for making quick check-in calls or requests for an officer to take a look at a suspicious situation.
Like a black Camry driving slowly down an alley, its headlights off. When Whitaker and Quistorf come across the car, they radio Waggonner to check in. They decide to call one of the officers parked at nearby Hoover High School. By the time Waggonner circles around to the end of the alley her partners were talking about, the officers are there, talking with the drivers.
Later, officers will arrest a couple of people trading pipes on the sidewalk by La Cresta Motel, a spot Waggonner said is notorious for busts. Sometimes the patrollers will just park their cars with the Talmadge Patrol signs on them in front of the motel, as if daring crime to take place on their watch. The motel’s proprietor once stood on the stoop and yelled obscenities at the patrollers, Waggonner said, for ruining his business.
“They’re communicating what’s acceptable in that particular neighborhood,” said Todd Gloria, a city councilman whose district includes Talmadge. “If the john sees the SUV along El Cajon Boulevard that says ‘Talmadge Patrol,’ he’s going to move on. The folks in Talmadge are saying: ‘Not in our neighborhood.'”
SDPD statistics for the first year the patrol was up and running showed a 37.9 percent decrease in residential burglaries, a 31.3 percent reduction in robberies, a 21.5 percent reduction in petty/grand thefts, and a 25.2 percent reduction in car prowls.
The team has also pulled in the City Attorney’s Office, which has obtained about 10 court orders to keep chronic offenders off the local streets, said Kristin Beattie, deputy city attorney.
Whitaker has lived in the neighborhood for 65 years. As a kid, his family left their doors unlocked.
“It disintegrated down to the point where you just barricade yourself,” he said.
His breaking point came when his wife’s Jeep was broken into in their driveway. “I said, ‘That’s it, I’m not going to give my neighborhood up.'”
The effort has had an unintended side benefit: Talmadge neighbors know each other better. They recognize each other’s cars, wave to the newspaper delivery people, keep an eye on each other’s kids, know each other’s daily patterns.
Waggonner said that had she known the home she was buying eight years ago was so close to so much crime, she probably would not have bought it. But now that she’s there, escaping to the suburbs is not an option, she said.
Since the program’s inception, the patrollers have learned when to call the officers on duty, and when a simple patrol drive-by will break up whatever’s happening.
“We’re the eyes and ears,” Waggonner said. “Who knows the neighborhood better than the people who live here?”
Whitaker echoes: “If we call into dispatch and say it’s a duck, they know it’s a duck.”
Now, Waggonner, Whitaker, Quistorf and the others find themselves involved in something that has grown much bigger than even they expected. They’ve become spokespeople for the program, touting it at public safety meetings and helping other neighborhoods get programs off the ground. They’ve attracted the admiration of the people who are paid to provide many of the services they’ve undertaken as volunteers.
“I think there might be always a question when well-intentioned citizens take something on their own — is this going to be sustainable?” Gloria said. “But they’re out there, night after night, giving up sleep, driving in their own cars even when gas was nearing $5 a gallon. They’ve long exceeded some of the skepticism about what their commitment was.”
Correction: The original version of this story misspelled Kelly Waggonner’s name. We regret the error.