by Pia K. Hansen

It's almost 9 o'clock on a Saturday night, and the COPS station on West Boone shines like an oversized Christmas display. The blue glare of neon lights falls through the big windows onto the sidewalk. Inside the Community Oriented Policing Substation (more commonly known as the COPS shop), a handful of people are getting ready to head out on this evening's Neighborhood Observation Patrol (NOP). Deb Bowcutt, who runs COPS West during the day, is handing out lists with the addresses of suspected meth and party houses. These houses got on Bowcutt's list because people have called COPS West and complained about them.

"At this address, neighbors say young kids are out in the front, smoking marijuana," she says. "And we have to go by Bong's Market. They got robbed there pretty bad earlier this week. I promised we'd come by during the evening and be there when he closes up." At a nearby Seven-Eleven they've had problems with a man who simply walks in, takes some beer and leaves without paying. There's a sex offender who tries to pick up young women at bus stops -- watch out for him, she says, he often pulls up in a cab. A woman has reported a peeping tom at her house.

Bowcutt acts like the captain at a local precinct doing the evening's briefing, but that's where the police force analogy ends. Bowcutt's patrols won't remind anyone of NYPD Blue. They look a lot more like the people who put on bake sales at the local church. Most of them are old enough to have grandkids skateboarding at the park, but they've had enough of sitting on the sidelines. They watch crime sweep through their neighborhood night after night, and they are out to do something about that.

The Neighborhood Observation Patrols are one tool the Spokane Police Department and frustrated neighbors use in the fight against meth, drug dealers, car thieves, gangs and other criminals.

The Nops -- as they affectionately call each other -- drive around the neighborhood at night, writing down license plates of cars parked in front of known drug houses, noting loud parties, cars parked in alleyways and other suspicious behavior. They know what house the unsupervised kids in the alley belong in. They know who moved out, who moved in and who's getting divorced. Trained by the SPD, they don't intervene, but they do take notes, and they keep close track of what's going on in their area after dark.

There are six Neighborhood Observation Patrols in the city of Spokane, and they pass the information they gather on to Crime Check and SPD.

These volunteers have an infectious zeal, a take-back-the-night spirit that's common in community volunteers who are out there doing something -- anything -- for the good of the neighborhood.

And action is what's badly needed -- especially against meth houses and meth dealers.

As methamphetamine use has swamped Spokane County, overwhelming law enforcement, filling up the courts and leaving a telltale trail of boarded-up houses, frustrated neighbors are running out of patience. Some of that frustration is directed at the police.

"The police don't seem to be doing anything," says a woman who lives on the east side of the lower South Hill and who didn't want her name used. "There are drug deals going down in the parking lot across the street from my house. I call Crime Check, and nothing, I mean, nothing changes. Last time I called in, Crime Check wouldn't even take the report -- they just said, 'We are aware of what's going on.' Well, exactly what does that mean, when all I see is the dealing continue night after night?"

Other neighbors are being asked by Crime Check to get the license plate numbers of vehicles that pull up outside suspected drug houses. Some are confident enough to drive by or peek over their fences and do so; others are concerned for their safety.

"I guess the police just want regular people out there doing the investigation," says another South Hill resident. "I mean, it makes no sense that they have the manpower to go around and enforce the municipal code, but they don't want to go after the drug dealers. All I'm saying is there's something wrong with the way they spend their resources."

If only it was that simple: take officers off municipal code enforcement, go after the drug dealers and -- voila -- Spokane's meth problem is over. But the police department is facing budget cuts -- along with every other city department -- and though Eastern Washington is expected to receive an injection of $1.3 million from the federal government to fight meth, law enforcement and the courts are still struggling to keep up with the meth problem and the property crime that comes with it.

But Crime Check does work, says SPD spokesman Dick Cottam. It's just that there is a little community confusion about what Crime Check is supposed to do when the calls come in.

"Crime Check are people hired and trained by the Sheriff's Department to answer calls," says Cottam. "They are not officers and cannot send out officers. They take reports, and if there is a current emergency such as a crime in progress, an assault, that type of situation, they immediately forward the caller to the dispatch center."

That's the core of the confusion: the people who answer the phone at Crime Check are not the ones sending patrol cars out. It's not like calling 911.

"Most people think they're talking with a police or sheriff's officer when they call Crime Check," says Cottam, "but it's an answering service."

In other words, if a caller thinks he sees a drug deal in progress across the street, he's not going to see a SPD patrol car pull up minutes after he's called in.

So what's the point of calling? With local law enforcement's emphasis on community policing, it seems that police should make some form of follow-up when everyday citizens do take the trouble to report something. No one should be surprised that people get frustrated when they think they see a crime happening, they report it and nobody seems to care.

Police say they do care, however, and the point is that it all adds up. Crime Check enters every call into an elaborate computer system, in which addresses, license plate numbers and names can be cross-referenced.

"There's a way of tracking all the calls to Crime Check, and we do use that quite a bit," says an officer from the Spokane Police Department's Drug Unit. (This officer works undercover, so she prefers to remain nameless.) "If an officer goes out and picks someone up on a warrant at an address and sees some chemicals or something while he's in the house, the officer can bring the house up on the computer and see that, hey, 14 people have already called in about that address. The judge is going to look at that and say you have a lot more probable cause to go in."

That makes it easier for the police to obtain a search warrant for the address -- and find out if it actually is a drug house.

"Just because there's a lot of traffic at a house or they have a lot of hoodlum people show up, doesn't mean it's a drug house," says the officer from the drug unit. "I understand why callers get frustrated if they think nothing happens. It all comes down to, it's hard to kick people out of their houses."

Back in West Central, the Nops don white Neighborhood Observation Patrol windbreakers and caps and load into two cars. The police scanner's static is scratching through the quiet from the backseat.

I share a car with three Nops, only one of whom actually lives in the neighborhood. Bowcutt drives and a volunteer rides in the passenger's seat, armed with a notepad, a searchlight and a cell phone. The last NOP volunteer, Laurie Moore sits in the back seat next to me -- she's been doing these patrols for four years.

Going west, toward the loop road above People's Park, everything is quiet. The reported party house sits mute on its corner lot, with drapes closed and a huge American flag hanging limp from the first floor.

"No activity there," says Bowcutt, and we head on.

Once on the loop road, we watch for new graffiti and spot a new paint job under one of the old railroad bridges. COPS volunteers will come down and take pictures of the graffiti. The photos are taken down to the police station. Then they'll paint over the graffiti and keep watching for new stuff to come up. They rarely have to wait more than a couple of days.

"This is a lot of what we do right now," says Bowcutt. "They keep all the pictures down at the station in a big archive. We fight it -- I mean, we paint it over all the time, but it keeps coming back."

Back in the neighborhood, down an unpaved street lined with old cars and trashcans, we drive slowly by a reported drug house. It's a rental, a small house, probably 70 years old, with a back porch that has been converted into a giant cage, completely covered with chain link fence. Two large Rottweilers pace back and forth behind the fence, their eyes shining white in the car's headlights.

Bowcutt says the house was never properly decontaminated after a meth lab moved out, and now the new renter has problems with blisters on her arms. No one knows why the house wasn't decontaminated or boarded up.

We're heading east now, checking the alleys and parking lots with the searchlight. There's not much going on.

We swing by Bong's -- the convenience store that was robbed earlier in the week. A few late evening shoppers pick up cigarettes, snacks and beer.

Down the street, a small child is standing in the front yard of a house. It's around 10:30. A handful of adults mill around in the yard and on the sidewalk. An older model Cadillac sits in the middle of the street, music playing, people getting in and out.

We make it once around the block and the Cadillac is gone, but its license plate was already written down. A woman, who was locked in a very intimate embrace with the driver of the car, is allegedly one of the local drug dealers. The Nops all refer to her by her first name.

"At least she didn't bring the baby tonight," says Bowcutt, as we drive away.

So the night continues. The same car comes and goes about five times in front of a reputed gang house; another car sits with its lights on in an alley, two guys looking startled when the searchlight finds them. A white Firebird sits with the hood popped, all windows knocked out and no license plate; an old Ford pickup full of trash but with no wheels has been written up many times, but it still sits in the same spot. We write down more license plates and swing past the house where the peeping Tom was reported. He's not there tonight -- the searchlight just catches a couple of cats by surprise.

"That's just typical, we get a reporter to ride along, and then nothing happens," someone deadpans, and everyone laughs as we pass one of the local bars. Bowcutt continues, "The first time I was out, someone was standing right there, on the second floor across from the bar, with a rifle." Judging by the police scanner, all the action this night is in northeast Spokane.

Bong's closes without incident, and we pass Seven-Eleven again.

As we drive through the neighborhood going west for probably the twentieth time -- in the first three months of the COPS West Neighborhood Observation Patrol, the Nops logged 1,000 miles of driving -- we check on a handful of houses where people are on vacation. We swing by a couple of parking lots, where cars have been spray painted or where homeless people tend to hide out underneath the cars or under the tarps that cover building materials. Nothing there.

Even the parks are quiet. So tonight the neighborhood patrol ends early. At half past midnight, we pull up in front of COPS West and everyone says goodnight.

One hour later, a gang fight broke out in one part of the neighborhood, and in another incident, two people got stabbed.

At the end of the night, one question begs an answer: Isn't it dangerous to send regular folks out to write down drug dealer license plates in the middle of the night? Or to suggest that a mom who calls Crime Check should go across the street and get the plate number of the drug car?

"I don't think it's dangerous to go out and write up license plates," says the officer from the drug unit. "Obviously, it depends on how comfortable people are with doing it. Common sense would dictate that you try to be subtle about it."

Subtlety is the name of the game for the Nops. If anything happens, they call 911 and get out of the way. What can be dangerous is when well-meaning neighbors run out of patience and confront the drug dealers next door.

"There are some people who stand in their front yards and yell, 'Hey you, I'm gonna write down your license plate,'" says the officer from the drug unit. "But those people also take a lot of heat for that behavior." This method is not recommended by law enforcement.

What police do recommend is keeping an eye on what's going on in your neighborhood, either on your own or through a Neighborhood Observation Patrol.

"We find that it helps keep the problems away when you involve multiple agencies like the COPS shops and the SPD and the NOP all together," says Marilyn Saunders, director of the COPS program. "There can be obstacles, and it can be very frustrating for people who go out with NOP, but we of course think it's very cool that they get involved the way they do."

Saunders says that especially with suspected drug houses, people should continue to call Crime Check.

"With the drain on resources that we are seeing right now, it may be some time before there's a response to a report that comes in," says Saunders. "The information from Crime Check and from the COPS shops does go to the Drug Unit. They do get the information. And ideally, I mean, if they are undercover, people may never know that the police were already out there."

Around COPS West, Moore pretty much sums it up. She says knowing a lot about what's going on in her neighborhood, including the drug dealing, the domestic fights and the gang wars, doesn't worry her.

"It's not worse to know what's going on. It's better to feel like I'm doing something about it," she says. "By volunteering, you get to meet a lot of people and they are the good people. And I know from personal experience that it does work. Call Crime Check, call your local COPS station -- things will happen." n

To learn more about volunteering in your neighborhood, or which COPS station serves your location, call 835-4591 or check out To report suspicious behavior, call

Crime Check at 456-2233.

Louis Comfort Tiffany: Treasures from the Driehaus Collection @ Northwest Museum of Arts & Culture

Tuesdays-Sundays, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Continues through Feb. 13
  • or