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'Weed and Seed' Program Helps Rebuild US Communities

US police departments and community organizations are working to reduce crime and revitalize neighborhoods under a program of the U.S. Department of Justice. The project, called "Weed and Seed," is intended to rebuild communities one block at a time. 1,800 people involved in the effort are meeting in Los Angeles.

The program has two parts, the first designed to "weed out" drugs and violent crime, and the second to plant the seeds of renewal.

Los Angeles Sheriff Lee Baca told the delegates that his city, which is hosting the national conference, shares the problems of other urban centers. But he says it has them in greater measure than many places.

"We have the largest gang problem in the United States," said Mr. Baca. "Over 86,000 gang members live here, over 1,000 gangs. We also are a distribution port to the rest of the United States concerning major drug dealing. We are essentially the car theft capital of America as well."

The police official says those problems require a multifaceted effort that starts with the schools and extends to business, city agencies and community organizations, all playing a role in improving neighborhoods.

The problems are all too evident in MacArthur Park, not far from central Los Angeles, where residents cope with prostitutes and drug dealers.

But here and in other places, community leaders report some progress. Part of the renewal effort involves rehabilitation for drug users and felons, and makes use of the talents of young volunteers. One of them, April Crowe, will soon start work the police department in the midwestern U.S. city of Indianapolis. A recent graduate of Earlham College in Richmond, Indiana, Ms. Crowe, who majored in art, changed course to spend a year as part of a U.S. government program called Volunteers in Service to America. The organization, know as Vista, will provide 500 volunteers to the Justice Department effort to help ex-felons adjust to life after prison.

"My job will be to make a database of all the resources within my county for people exiting jail. Those would be housing, educational resources and job resources," said Ms. Crowe.

Community workers say help is available for the unemployed, the troubled and the addicted. A local church may offer food and a community organization may offer job training. But the efforts are often uncoordinated, and the community workers hope to change that.

Some at the conference work in rural areas, and many work in the inner city. Derrick Long is a community worker from West Philadelphia, where crime and unemployment rates are high.

"It's a low-income area," said Mr. Long. "It was blighted. We're doing some community revitalization, where we're tearing down and rebuilding, and things like that."

His organization also sponsors drug-intervention programs, and sports and after-school activities for children.

Part of the "weed and seed" effort involves better policing. Many U.S. cities now embrace what is called "community policing," putting more officers on the street to discourage crime and to build better relations with residents. Some departments are using high tech equipment to get the violent offenders off the streets. Violent crime has gone down near MacArthur Park in Los Angeles since closed-circuit cameras were installed there.

Los Angeles police are also testing a so-called "smart car," in conjunction with the company Hamilton-Pacific. Spokesman Steve Reinharz says a patrol car is equipped with rooftop cameras and computer software that scans the license plates of nearby cars.

"License plate recognition is going to scan up to 1,500 vehicles an hour automatically, without any intervention by the officer," said Mr. Reinharz. "There are cameras on the vehicles that look for the license plates on the vehicles surrounding it, and it will automatically scan it on a database."

The system will identify stolen cars and those that are owned by drivers who are wanted as suspects or witnesses to crimes.

The "smart" patrol car also videotapes the activity when an officer stops a driver, creating an audio-visual record of each encounter. Another innovation, a handheld camera, will match photographs of drivers against a criminal database. Mr. Reinharz says officers will also be able to send fingerprints from their patrol cars for a conclusive identity match.

Officials say reducing crime is one part of the formula for better communities. The other is building bridges between police departments, local agencies, and community organizations. They say revitalized communities must have jobs, opportunities for education, and a safe environment for children.