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Red Hook Survey

Much of the information contained in this monograph is drawn from the experience of planners who worked on the development of the Red Hook Community Justice Center, a multijurisdictional community court in the heart of a low-income, high-crime neighborhood in Brooklyn, New York.

Planning for the Justice Center started in 1994, and in 1995, the center launched its first program. The Red Hook Public Safety Corps (Corps) is an AmeriCorps program with 50 participants from the community who work on crime-prevention and victim- assistance projects. For their work in the Corps, participants receive a small stipend, an education award, and valuable work experience.

Design

The team quickly seized onto the Corps members as a potential vehicle for completing a comprehensive community survey. Greg Berman, the original planner of the Justice Center, recalls, “We had obtained a pretty good picture of community needs from interviews and focus groups, but we wanted more. We wanted to reach a broader segment of the community. The Corps allowed us to make sure that what we were hearing was truly representative of the entire neighborhood’s concerns.”

Berman and the rest of the team created an ambitious questionnaire—9 pages with approximately 170 questions—that was designed to take 20 minutes to administer. Although the survey is long, community residents have been supportive. Shona Bowers, a life-long resident of Red Hook who now runs the Corps, says, “Before becoming involved with the Corps myself, I remember seeing Corps members walking all over the neighborhood with clipboards. I’d think, ‘Look, they’re back for that survey.’ It felt good to see them coming back to ask us what we, as residents, wanted for our community.” Bowers is not the only resident who knows about the survey: In the 2000 survey, 37 percent of the respondents stated that they had participated in previous surveys.

Collection

This survey, which is now known as “Operation Data,” serves two principal purposes: to measure community perceptions of neighborhood safety and to spread the word about the program. To meet these goals, surveyors speak to as many people as possible in a 2-week period. With 50 full-time interviewers, the survey reaches hundreds of people each year. In 2000, for example, 960 people were interviewed, which represents 9 percent of Red Hook’s 10,846 residents (or 18 percent of households). With so many questionnaires to enter and numbers to process, the entire process takes about 5 months from the first day of surveying to the dissemination of a final report. The bulk of this time is devoted to entering data; each questionnaire takes approximately 20–25 minutes to enter into the database.

Training

Because most Corps members have had no experience in administering a survey, surveyors undergo a full day of training. This training covers, among other things, interviewing techniques (including tone of voice and speaking slowly and clearly), safety procedures (interviewers are told always to travel in groups and never go inside an apartment), and role plays of difficult scenarios (hostile, unresponsive, or nervous participants). Members perform a 2-hour test run that covers a small target area. After the test run, Justice Center staff give feedback on interviewing techniques and the volunteers have a chance to discuss any issues or problems that come up.

Corps members are divided into 10 groups of 5 members each. Each group has two pairs: one person asks the questions while the other records the answers. The fifth member serves as the group captain to oversee the day’s work. The captain fills out a building log to track which households have been contacted and is responsible for troubleshooting when problems arise. By reviewing the daily building logs submitted by each team captain, program staff can ensure that the surveyors are covering the targeted area in a comprehensive and effective manner.

Obstacles

Over the years, the Red Hook survey has faced two main obstacles: language barriers and timing.

A significant number of residents speak only Spanish, making the survey difficult to complete for surveyors who speak only English. This problem is addressed by making sure the survey teams have both Spanish- and English-speaking members.

The other major challenge is finding people at home. People often are not at home when surveyors come. Therefore, the survey is done both during the day and in the evening. Surveyors also go to more than just apartment buildings; they visit the local health center, businesses, banks, supermarkets, and housing development offices during rent time.

Analysis

The annual Red Hook survey is a massive undertaking that requires the time and attention of numerous staff—managers, researchers, and others at the Justice Center. While the effort is significant, so are the benefits. The survey has gone a long way toward building local support for the Justice Center and shaping Justice Center programs. Mansky, the coordinator of the Justice Center, says that “Operation Data is like a map. It tells us where we’ve been, where we are, and where we’re going. Mayor [Edward I.] Koch used to go around the city asking people, ‘How’m I doing?’ Well, this is our way of going around the neighborhood and asking folks how the Justice Center is doing.”

Over the years, the survey has yielded a number of surprises. Despite Red Hook’s “Wild West” reputation as a place where drugs and gun violence rule the streets, the residents who participate in Operation Data are also concerned about quality-of-life conditions. Each year, more than 60 percent cite garbage, littering, poor street lighting, and rundown parks as major neighborhood problems.

Less surprising but equally distressing, Operation Data revealed high levels of fear in the neighborhood, especially in the early years. Although residents report feeling safe in their apartments, the moment they step outside their doors, their feelings change dramatically. One out of three feels unsafe in the elevator or the building lobby.

Survey participants respond to real problems they face every day—urine in their elevators, graffiti in their stairwells, and lights broken by drug dealers eager to work in darkness. Many feel these conditions create an atmosphere where more serious crime can flourish.

New Programs

In response, the Justice Center has dedicated a team of Corps members to make physical improvements in and around the Red Hook Houses. Working with the New York City Housing Authority, team members repair broken locks and hallway lights, conduct safety inspections, and organize graffiti cleanups. “Our work makes a direct impact on living conditions for people in the Houses. Take our safety inspections: by immediately reporting when an elevator ceiling lock has broken, we prevent kids from riding on top of the elevators for fun, which can be extremely dangerous,” remarks Roberto Julbe, a former Corps member who is now on staff at the Justice Center.

Safety inspections and repairs by Corps members are examples of how the survey results can affect Justice Center programs. Another example is the Red Hook Youth Court. Over a period of 2 years, community residents cited youth crime as a problem and expressed concern about the lack of services and jobs for youth in the neighborhood. In response, the Justice Center turned these concerns into a program for local teenagers. Opened in April 1998, the Red Hook Youth Court addresses low-level juvenile offenses by training teenagers to serve as judges, jurors, and advocates for their peers. This court determines sanctions for offenders involved in infractions such as truancy, graffiti, and disorderly conduct. Because these sanctions are designed in part to pay back the community harmed by these quality- of-life offenses, the 1998 survey asked citizens what sanctions they would like the Youth Court to use. Based on the residents’ opinions, Youth Court sanctions now include community service projects (e.g., community gardening and park cleanups), essays, and letters of apology.

The next year’s survey (1999) allowed the Justice Center to track whether the Youth Court had made its presence known in the community. That survey showed that the majority of residents (54 percent) had heard about the program, and more than 75 percent of that group was satisfied with it.

Partnerships

The survey’s impact, however, goes farbeyond programming. It has strengthened partnerships with other agencies. For example, residents’ consistently high demand for mediation convinced Safe Horizon, the largest provider of mediation services in New York City, to provide a staff person at the Justice Center.

Mansky explains, “The survey drove home the point that there was a community need for mediation.” This demand, expressed through the survey, made mediation a prominent component of the Justice Center. The mediation office is located centrally on the main floor and across from the courtroom. If needed, a judge can easily send a case across the hall for mediation.

As planners had hoped, the Red Hook survey has also become a vehicle to promote the Justice Center’s programs among local residents. In addition to soliciting answers to survey questions, Corps members discuss the purpose of the Justice Center. Throughout an interview, Corps members take the opportunity to describe the project and its services, inviting participants to the Justice Center to see what is happening. The survey is valuable when planners craft community presentations, respond to press requests for information, and complete funding applications. The survey results also are disseminated to the Justice Center’s partners as part of its collaboration-building efforts. In addition, these results are used as part of an independent evaluation of the Justice Center that is being conducted by Columbia University’s Center for Violence Research and Prevention.


Surveying Communities: A Resource for Community Justice Planners
May 2003