New-York Historical Society

Combating Crime through Community Organizing: The Story of the Westside Crime Prevention Program

This post was written by N-YHS intern Erin Shaw. The Westside Crime Prevention Program Records are now available to researchers at the New-York Historical Society’s library.

Although crime has always been an issue for New York City residents, an unprecedented rash starting in the 1970s began to terrorize the Upper West Side of Manhattan — a troubling sign of the crime epidemic’s severity in New York City during that time. Residents were often subject to robberies and muggings, and the drug epidemic reached unparalleled levels. Crack vials littered the streets, and drug dealers sold their products openly in public: “It’s anarchy down there,” one middle-aged resident noted as he witnessed a crack sale beneath his window in 1988. “Some days there are so many cars lined up to buy that it looks like a McDonald’s drive-in.”

Executive Director Marjorie Cohen with Mayor Michael Bloomberg in 2004. She was honored for her work in the community at the Manhattan Civic Leaders Breakfast.

Executive Director Marjorie Cohen with Mayor Michael Bloomberg in 2004. She was honored for her work in the community at the Manhattan Civic Leaders Breakfast.

In response to the fear generated by the crime in the area, neighborhood residents organized and fought back. The Westside Crime Prevention Program (WCPP) was founded in 1981 by a group of Upper West Siders in response to this rash of street muggings, burglaries, and drug crime. Marjorie Cohen, a freelance writer and Upper West Side resident, began organizing and leading the program as Executive Director in 1988. The WCPP was a community-based, not-for-profit organization made up of volunteers who were dedicated to making life on the West Side (from 59th street to 110th street, from the Hudson River to Central Park) safe and secure. To do this, the program developed both a Neighborhood Watch Program and a Crime Victims Witness Assistance Project that were so successful that they have since been used as models throughout the city. The WCPP also lobbied for increased police street patrols on the Upper West Side, which resulted in the establishment of the Community Patrol Officer Program (CPOP) and the Narcotics Enforcement Unit (SNEU) in the 20th and 24th Precincts.

The WCPP would use slides such as this one to visually train residents on how to identify drug paraphernalia.

The WCPP would use slides such as this one to visually train residents on how to identify drug paraphernalia.

While the Westside Crime Prevention Program led and collaborated on many community projects in their thirty year existence, their Crime Prevention and Drug Watch Training program and Safe Haven are two that stand out. The WCPP led training events to teach residents how to identify drug dealings and paraphernalia, and also how to best report these incidences anonymously to the police. Many residents feared retribution by criminals if they were to get involved with the police, so the WCPP helped to facilitate a safe and anonymous system of reporting. By directly involving constituencies in crime prevention efforts, the WCPP helped to empower the community against crime and ultimately increased police protection in the neighborhood.

A pamphlet promoting the Safe Haven program.

A pamphlet promoting the Safe Haven program.

Safe Haven was established in 1971 and is a continuing program that helps to foster awareness of street safety among students, parents, and teachers. Merchants and businesses involved in Safe Haven offer a secure environment and telephone use for children who may become lost or feel unsafe. A participating location places a bright yellow “Safe Haven” decal in the storefront window, and the children are instructed to seek out these establishments if they feel that they are in imminent danger. The Westside Crime Prevention Program helped to promote and expand this program in their neighborhood.

Feeling that the core mission of the organization had been fulfilled, Marjorie Cohen and the members of the Westside Crime Prevention Program decided to disband in 2010. However, the substantial effect the program had on the safety of the Upper West Side is undeniable.

 

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