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Wednesday, June 11, 2014

A Q&A with Peggy Denby as Midtown public-safety advocate rides into sunset

Earlier this month, the Midtown Ponce Security Alliance announced that Peggy Denby and her husband Don Jones, two of the key leaders of the public-safety organization, were retiring after more than 10 years of fighting prostitution, drug dealers, and homelessness in the neighborhood. Denby has earned applause for helping cracking down on crime - and taken her share of criticism for some of her views and MPSA's aggressive approach to combatting crime. CL's Maggie Lee spoke with Denby about her work, critics, and what still needs to be done. This interview has been edited and condensed.

CL: You moved to Midtown in 2001 and started the MPSA in 2003. Why?

D: Because of what we saw here.

CL: Describe that for me.

D: The streets were filled with hookers and drug dealers, and I mean literally filled with them 24/7. Which was somewhat disconcerting, having moved from another part of town where we didn't, I'd never seen any of that. It took us a while to figure what it was, then we had to decide what we were going to do about it.

CL: So why did you decide to take the approach you did with this organization you started?

D: We had two choices. One was to leave but we wanted to be here, we liked the area until we saw all that ... So we found out about a security group ... We started going to those and there were a lot of people there and we realized everybody was aware of all these problems but didn't know exactly what to do about it. And from those meetings came the idea to form an organization where we could collect money and hire off-duty police officers so that's what we decided to do: to come up with the 501(c)4. The rest is history as they say.

CL: What has MPSA done that has most changed the neighborhood do you think?

D: Well we addressed ... the issues. ... You see this was a time... there were no police here to speak of. There were not enough police on the pol force to take care of the city or Midtown. The ones we had were often called in every time it rained, they'd have to go down to the interstate to work traffic accidents because that was what they were supposed to do at the time. So we often had no police and at best inadequate force. So we understood that, we knew that that was part of the problem so we wanted to bring in more police and we figured we'd have to do it ourselves. So we did that and then we realized we needed a vehicle so we went out and got some more money and bought a vehicle.

And then we started looking at all of the other things going on, not just what the police could do but what we as residents could do. And that involved things like cutting back hiding places, cleaning out vagrant camps, those sorts of CPTED [crime prevention through environmental design.] It's environmental safety ... putting bushes in places where you don't want people, those kinds of things ... so we started taking that kind of approach, really a holistic approach to what are the things that are contributing to crime in this neighborhood. And that led to replacing street lights, having stop signs in the right places, I mean just everything that we could possibly think of that would make the neighborhood safer. And then we went into cleaning it as well. Cleaner and safer go together.

That was a huge, huge undertaking and that took a lot of people a long time ... public safety is a really big deal and it includes a lot of things, not just having a police officer around. It starts there it doesn't end there

CL: You and the organization have plenty of critics saying you're anti-homeless, anti-prostitute, maybe anti-transgender. What's your response to these kind of attacks?

D: Some of those were the problems we faced. Some of them we still face, particularly the trans group. They're the remaining ones.

But these groups, and rather than them as speaking of them as groups we have them as individuals, they bring in the crime.

We have to analyze what our crime was and where it was coming from. If you don't know then you can't deal with it.

We knew that with all the homeless camps came the car break-ins and came the misdemeanor crimes that were just rampant. We knew that the prostitutes brought in the drug dealers. We knew that the drug dealers brought in everything else.

So once you break it down, it's pretty easy to know what you're dealing with and what you have to do. We couldn't always do all the things we needed to have done, but that was our M.O.

CL: Now that you're heading out and new leadership is going to be stepping up what remains to be done?

D: I think we finally after 12 years are pretty much in a maintenance mode and that's a good thing. I think we are pretty much there. We've got a lot of stability.

Through this long period of time the neighborhood has become a safety-oriented neighborhood, everybody understands what it takes. That is one of the things we were able to accomplish. They all work together now and work with MPSA and work with the APD and to some extent we work with Midtown Blue. We didn't do all this by ourselves. It takes a lot of folks. So residents have really played a big role in that.

We get e-mails. If anybody sees anything that looks bizarre... or looks out of place we know about it. It's the old 'if you see something say something.' That works big-time here. And that came after years of us saying, 'If you see something call 911.' ... call 911 first, don't wait, go ahead and do that. So people are doing that.

They were reluctant to call 911 (because) at first it didn't do much good because we didn't have enough police officers. That has all changed. Everything has changed. We've got police now. We've got a great police chief, we've had really good officers assigned to the neighborhood, we've got officers who have worked for us who have been here a number of years and that all contributes to an overall safe environment. People feel safe.

Not to say we don't have crime. Every neighborhood has crime and probably always will, but it's nothing like it was.

CL: As y'all depart for the road what's your message to Midtown? What do you say to your neighbors?

D: It's been great! My husband and I have really enjoyed living here. It's hard to leave because we have had such a good time, but at some point we need to relax and enjoy ourselves. I don't think we can do that here because there are a lot of people who expect that we are going to do things, and we expect that we are going to do things. I told Don that we need to get into an environment where everything is new and there are no expectations, so we can do something different for a while. We're both tired.

CL: Anything else I need to ask you that our readers need to be thinking about?

D: I would just like to leave positive rather than negative thoughts about what we've done ... the critics, it's so easy to sit back and fire shots at people who are out there busting our buns because we make good targets, and that's what people do and I understand that and we've always known that.

We also as a group, we knew that we had a lot of work ahead of us, we knew it would not be easy, we knew that we would catch some flak and we also knew that in tight situations we would have to take the lead because we didn't have anything to lose, if you know what I mean. Like the police sometimes can't go in and do things because of PR, reporters writing, they have to stay away from all that.

We didn't want to have a light on us either, but somebody had to stir the pot and that kind of became our role because we were residents and neighbors and a volunteer group, so it was kind of our job to represent the neighborhood in terms of public safety issues ... some of them weren't pleasant.

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