The Starrett City housing complex is an oasis of safety in East New York, one of the nation's most violent neighborhoods. Starrett City has no open-air drug markets and few violent crimes. In all of 1994, police recorded only 24 car thefts, 12 burglaries, 6 aggravated assaults, and no rapes in the complex. (The year saw one murder, a case of domestic violence.) "When there's a robbery, it's still an event," says one resident.
No, Starrett City isn't some gated, upscale enclave—most of its residents are minorities, and 90 percent receive government rent subsidies. Its secret: for the past 20 years the company that runs the complex, Grenadier Realty, has employed a security force, now consisting of 60 officers, to patrol the grounds. Each Starrett guard is certified as a "special officer" by the New York City Police Department and is licensed to carry a gun. Although paid entirely with private funds, the guards have nearly all the powers of regular police officers, including the authority to make arrests and book suspects within the complex.
Exemplifying the crime-prevention philosophy of community policing, Starrett City's guards patrol the complex's apartment buildings, parking lots, shopping center, and school, keeping an eye out for strangers. They enforce the countless minor, sometimes unspoken, standards of public behavior that determine whether a neighborhood will seem—and ultimately become—safe. When the rare felony occurs, the guards usually summon city police officers rather than deal with it themselves.
All of this shows that poor neighborhoods can benefit from a strong order-keeping effort. It shows, too, that the benefits of private security needn't be exclusively for the wealthy.