It is 10 p.m. and 20 middle-aged and elderly Washington residents are walking through the alleys and streets of their 14th Street neighborhood in a ragtag procession, waving flashlights and hammers.
The 37-year-old librarian leading the group has a fully loaded handgun. With him march a high school teacher tugging on an Irish setter and a grim State Department systems analyst accompanied by a plodding white German shepherd. A small, 52-year-old housewife clutches a stick and a 35-year-old waiter in a black vinyl jacket holds a heavy block of wood.
They march through alleys. Their feet make a crunching sound as they walk over broken bottles and trash. Dogs bark from windows. All the while, the residents chat and complain about the rise in crime in their neighborhood.
They call themselves a "citizens patrol group." Tonight they're hunting for burglars. When they find them, some group members say there will be trouble.
"We're going to shoot to kill," says Tony Hillary, the curly-haired librarian whose handgun bulges from under his dark print shirt. Either you shoot them or they shoot you."
Hillary, chairman of the area's Advisory Neighborhood Commission ANC, said he organized the group of mostly ANC members because of the number of burglaries in the area and because residents say they seldom see police patrollng their blocks.
"The police don't care," Hillary says. "We're going to do them a favor."
Burglaries increased 8 percent in the city last year, the first increase since 1974. For the first six months of this year they jumped 17 percent, making burglary one of the fastest growing major crimes in the city.
Police records show that there were 20 burglaries during the last year on the streets where most of the patrol group members live -- the 1400 and 1500 blocks of Harvard Streets NW and the 1400 and 1500 blocks of Columbia Road NW.
None of the residents who patrolled the streets Wednesday night has been burglarized. But all of them know neighbors who have been. They say they do not want to be next.
They are homeowners who moved into the 14th Steet area over the past seven years. Many of them purchased relatively inexpensive homes hoping that the area around them would change.
While they wait for heroin addicts to leave the neighborhood, they have spent thousands of dollars to install iron bars outside windows and doors. They keep cans of mace by bedsides and loeaded rifles over the fireplace.
Lately, they have become tired of living in forts.
They acknowledge that police have chased many drug dealers from 14th Street, but they say heroin users continually deal on the 1400 block of Girard Street NW. Those deals, they say, spawn crime on their own blocks -- particularly burglaries and robberies.
"The police say, 'Close your eyes and the neighborhood will change,'" says Hillary, as he marches proudly at the head of the group. "Well, I can't close my eyes. It's time we took retaliatory measures."
For months, the residents had been talking about patrolling the streets. Several weeks ago, they thought they might not have to go on patrol, since fourth district police promised that foot patrolmen would walk through the neighborhood. But few residents have seen the foot patrolmen. Those who have say that they do not patrol at night and they do not go through alleys.
On Wednesday night, the residents went on their first patrol. They marched, for two hours, through alleys and along sidewalks from the 1400 block of Harvard Street to the 1400 block of Girard Street to the 1500 block of Harvard Street to the 1400 block of Columbia Road, and then back to Harvard and Girard streets.
They did not find any burglars, or see any crimes. Burglars, they say, are men or women who "don't belong in the area" and who are trying to get into a house, particularly through a window.
"If we shoot them and they have something in their hands or are on someone's property, it's justified homicide," says Hillary.
"You would think middle-class people would not have to resort to this kind of thing. It goes totally against my unbringing. I have a master's degree. But it's a basic human instinct to protect your turf."
Police say that citizen patrol groups are usually "good for the community." But this particular group -- with its sticks and hammers -- makes the police nervous.
"Maybe some poor bastard will get locked out of his house and is trying to get in his own window," says Sgt. Bill Reidy of the fourth district. "And maybe they'll beat him unconscious without asking enough questions.
"So many things that look one way are another way once you investigate them."
Police say that even if it were proven that the person breaking into a house were a burglar, it would be illegal for the patrol group to beat him or shoot at him.
"The only time you can shoot at a burglar is if he's threatening you inside your own house," said one officer.
Ethel Carnegie, who lives in the 2900 block of 14th St., NW, and is a columnist for the black weekly newspaper, The New Observer, said she decided to go with the group because she never feels safe.
"When I was young, my family was the second black family on the block" she said, as she shifted her stick from hand to hand. "We only had a latch on the door. Now I have all kinds of locks and I'm always jumpy."
A tall, 75-year-old woman who walked with a cane said that she did not know the group was looking for burglars. She had helped clean up the streets last summer, and "whatever the crowd wants to do, I go along with," she said, as she followed the other through a dark alley between the 1400 blocks of Harvard Street and Columbia Road NW.
Dick Stafursky, 34, a substitute high school teacher in Fairfax County, said his resolve to march with the group was stengthened last week, when he was robbed while walking to his house on the 1400 block of Harvard Street.
"Two guys hit me with a fist and kicked me in the groin," he said, as he pointed to a cut on his lip and blook stains on his blue ski jacket. "Nobody walking past would help me."
As they walk, they point out to each other the broken street lights, the vacant buildings, the rats scurrying past them, the mattresses and beer cans strewn in the alleys.
"This beautiful old building is brought to you by benign neglect," say Shelvin Goldup, a public relations man, as he points to a vacant four-story building at 1421 Columbia Road NW. The door of the building was once filled with concrete blocks, but most of the blocks have been removed. "It's about time the city fixed that building up."
The group shuffles along, into an alley between the 1400 blocks of Columbia Road and Harvard Street NW, waving sticks and flashlights.
"They haven't replaced the light," says Hillary, as he points his outstretched arm toward the overhead lamp in the littered alley. The others look up at the street lamp and disgustedly nod their heads in unison.
The procession moves to Harvard Street, and then through an alley to the 1400 block of Girard Street NW. For a half hour, they stand in the middle of the block, eyeing the dozen youths who chat and dance in the street. After a while, most of the youths go inside, but a few linger outside the apartment houses, listening to the blare of disco music on a transistor radio and watching the cluster of people with dogs and sticks.
"If we come through in a group and we do it frequently, maybe they won't be out here seeling drugs," says Hillary, as he eyes the youths eyeing him.
"The whole time we've been here, have you seen a policeman?" he asks. The other members of the group chime in with a chorus of complaints about police neglect.
Sue and Henry Childs, tell the other members of the patrol group that they were almost burglarized two weeks ago, and that the police did not do anything. w
"Three men were banging on our door at 5:30 a.m.," says Henry Childs. "We called the police, and they told us that by the time they got to our house, the men would be gone."
Childs believes the men were trying to get into his house and rob him because a woman in the neighborhood recently was robbed and killed after a man banged on her door in the early morning.
Suddenly, someone in the patrol group shouts, "A police car!" The other members of the group peer down Girard Street, see the car approaching and begin cheering.
"A secnd police car!" someone exclaims.
"A third police car!" someone else yells.
All three police cars stop near the group. Officer L. P. Greene gets out of the second patrol car.
"We got a call for 30 people with sticks getting ready to do battle," he announces.
The group gives a collective giggle.
Hillary tells Greene that the group is a "community patrol group" walking through the streets because of "all the crime in the area." Hillary also complains that the residents rearely see a policeman.
Greene tells Hillary that there are only 12 policemen on the streets on his district, instead of 40, because of budget cuts by the city council. Then, the patrol cars cruise away.
The group members begin laughing "The drug dealers called the police on us," chuckles Ed Hardy, the systems analyst for the State Department, "And the police actually came."