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Iran Standard Time | Warning: Neighborhood Watch Program in Force

by CORRESPONDENT

20 Jun 2012 21:56Comments
Amirabad-1-51.jpgSafety and security along a middle-class Tehran alley.

[ dispatch ] Driving home on a Thursday afternoon around four o'clock earlier this month, I saw a group of people gathering around one of the apartments in the middle of our dead-end alley. Spring was gradually giving way to summer, creating a very comfortable sunny afternoon in the foothills of the Alborz Mountains.

As I parked and approached the small crowd on foot, I heard the sound of a police siren and saw a police car pull over. People were surrounding building 7 at the heart of the alley, where they had trapped an agitated man in the front garden with its waist-high wall. He was swinging a stick around, trying to make a break for it. It soon became clear that he had been caught in an act of thievery. Given how his eyes rolled around in their sockets and the manic way he repeatedly lunged toward the crowd, there was little doubt that he was under the influence of drugs.

"A thief at 4 p.m. on a Thursday -- what is this country coming to?" muttered the retired police sergeant from building 20. The thief tried to jump over the wall, but a young, well-built man ran toward him, pulled him down, and slapped him so hard that the thief fell to the ground, the back of his head barely missing the curb.

After absorbing the pain for a few moments, the thief began to smile. "You know you can go to jail for this. Why hit me? I have rights," he said, blood oozing from the corner of his mouth. The young man moved as if to strike the thief again, but was held back by the crowd. One policeman moved in to cuff the thief, while his junior partner tried to pick out the young man, whom the crowd successfully concealed.

"You shouldn't hit these people, you know," said the first policeman in a commanding voice. "He can sue you and claim damages according to Islamic law," he continued, pointing at people.

A middle-aged woman shouted, "What is going on? Why don't you put these people in prison and get rid of them? For God's sake, it is the middle of the day and this lunatic is jumping over the walls and into people's homes and you are blaming us for defending our belongings."

The crowd moved toward the two policemen, murmuring profanities. The occupant of one of the apartments in building 7, holding an infant in her arms, began to yell. "This is the third time this week that our property has been stolen and our privacy compromised. What are you doing about it?"

The elder policeman waved at the crowd to settle down and said, "Crime is on the rise. Inflation is crippling the lives of many and for some like this jerk there is no other way. We are doing all we can, but our resources are very limited." He sighed. "This is the second person in this sector that we have captured since noon. Believe me, we are doing our best. We can't do any more." He pointed at the thief and continued, "But if he bleeds, we have no alternative but to arrest the person who attacked him. This is the law."

"It's just a matter of trust -- a matter of trust and we do not trust you!" the enraged ex-sergeant shrieked. "We called you the last few times when cars were broken into. You sent a petty officer on a motorbike and instead of taking care of us, he asks if we suspect anyone to be the thief. What kind of a question is that? You guys have to answer to us, not question us. For God's sake, if we knew who the thief was, we sure as hell would capture the sonuvagun. But no one is captured. Now that we capture a thief in broad daylight, we have to pamper him? Are you serious? Who is protecting us?" He was shaking so that I thought he might be on the verge of a heart attack. I ran over to try to calm him down.

Amirabad-1-36.jpg"Maybe we should take the matters into our own hands!" The loud voice of the young man emerged from the crowd. He walked toward the police car as the two officers pushed the cuffed thief into it. The elder policeman replied, "You can hire private security, but then you have to pay them and set up a kiosk at the entrance of the alley." The young man reached the vehicle and, knocking on the window beside where the thief was sitting, growled, "Next time we will break your neck...officially."

The crowd did not disperse after the police were gone. For the first time, I saw worried faces turn into determined ones. A small grassroots movement was forming to tackle a problem that the government with all of its oil and tax income could not -- a problem of safety and security.

Our alley is located in the northwest of Tehran, in a neighborhood where the houses of the affluent weave in among middle-class apartment complexes. The 24 buildings on our alley each have four apartments, for a total of 96. The following day, a dozen or so tenants gathered near the end of the alley at 10:30 in the morning to discuss what measures could be taken to secure the neighborhood.

A tenant who works for a major newspaper mentioned recent statements by the national police chief. "Even Brigadier Ahmadi Moghadam himself has on two separate occasions [February 1 and May 1] admitted that car thefts and residential robberies are increasing. And yesterday, this policeman said it all. Theft is on the rise and they cannot do anything about it."

After an hour of discussion, agreement was reached on a two-step plan to protect the alley: First, we would contract with a police-licensed security company to provide us with round-the-clock guard service. If that failed to substantially improve things, we would then equip the alley with closed-circuit television cameras.

We found out that each of two security guards working 12-hour shifts would cost around $400 per month, including a uniform, equipment (handcuffs, pepper spray, baton), taxes, health insurance, and social security and retirement benefits. The guard kiosk would have a one-time cost of around $1,500, plus extra for a high-contrast floodlight and alarm; there would be monthly electricity and phone charges as well.

Our little group decided to launch a newsletter, open a bank account dedicated to security services, and ask each of the 24 buildings to appoint a representative to elect a three-member "board of trustees." This body would make the necessary arrangements and report the results on a bulletin board installed on the wall of one of the buildings. As one might imagine, discussions continue about the money: how much apartment owners will pay versus renters and when. Still, the entire enterprise demonstrates the will of the people to do something rather than sit around and wait endlessly for the incompetent government to step in.

Photos of Tehran's Amirabad neighborhood by Shahre Farang.

Copyright © 2012 Tehran Bureau

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