Wellington Heights Neighborhood Association President Justin Wasson knows people talk.
He hears it at work, at the grocery store or out in the community. That Wellington Heights, in Cedar Rapids's southeast quadrant, is a dangerous, crime-infested neighborhood.
What some of these people don't talk about, Wasson said, are the neighborhood spaghetti suppers, the community gardens or the Know Your Neighbor program, which strives to connect residents with similar interests to foster a sense of community. Those efforts truly define the neighborhood, he said.
"The perception is gunshots, murders, thefts" Wasson said. "It's not real."
Neighborhoods in the city that have formed associations have their crime statistics tracked by the Cedar Rapids Police Department. While Wellington Heights leads those 13 neighborhoods in arrests for 2013, the neighborhood also has experienced a considerable drop in arrests since 2009. During that time, arrests have fallen from 637 in 2009 to 548 in 2013.
During the past five years:
Citywide, calls for service have increased from 120,099 in 2009 to 132,502 last year. But actual arrests have decreased during that time, going from 9,845 to 9,625.
Police Chief Wayne Jerman said 2014 already is off to a positive start, with the city experiencing a 10 percent drop in violent offenses compared to 2013.
The police department can't take sole credit for the city's downward trend in arrests, however, he added.
"It's both the police department and the community working together to achieve successful numbers," Jerman said.
That sentiment is echoed by neighborhood leaders throughout the city.
Wasson has lived in Wellington Heights for four and a half years and became president of the neighborhood association in 2013. He's passionate about the neighborhood and its reputation and believes the residents there aren't being fairly portrayed.
Sure, there's crime, he said, but look at the population. In 2013, the Wellington Heights neighborhood had 4,448 residents. By comparison, Oakhill/Jackson had a population of 1,514; Northwest had 2,892 and Mound View had 3,774.
Wasson compared Wellington's crime statistics — taking its population into consideration — contrasted it with those other neighborhoods, and is pleased with what he sees.
"When you look at it that way ... we're actually doing really good," he said, noting Wellington compares favorably in categories such as thefts, criminal mischief and burglary.
He admitted the neighborhood still could see improvement in assaults in domestic assaults.
Wasson credited the fall in arrests to two factors — the actions of neighbors who want to improve their neighborhood and a receptive police department.
"The neighbors got fed up with the problems, and a lot of them are stepping up," he said.
Wasson said neighbors have hosted picnics in the community's limited number of parks, forcing drug dealers to go elsewhere. They also replaced their watch captain program with a friendlier, Know Your Neighbor Program.
Block captains interview residents about their interests — ranging from gardening to video games — and hook them up with like-minded neighbors. This spring, the neighborhood plans to host a Know Your Neighbor event to celebrate the end of spring. The event will feature food, games and music.
Each Friday, a neighborhood meeting is hosted at the Wellington House, allowing neighbors an opportunity to meet with a police representative and voice concerns. It gives police a heads up on potential issues before they become a problem or require an arrest.
"We just talk about what's going on in the neighborhood," he said.
That level of communication is a key component of the community policing concepts Chief Jerman said is vital to keeping crime under control in the city. Jerman said he encourages all neighborhood associations and all residents to call police.
"We welcome the call," Jerman said. "If it needs police attention, the police will be there to provide it. If it checks out OK, no crime. No harm, no foul ... .
"They know their neighborhood, they know what's out of place. They know what's suspicious. You're not bother the police by calling us. That's our job."
Jerman said his officers significantly have increased their self-initiated activities in recent years citywide. He said that could be one reason calls for service have increased while arrests have decreased.
"More self-initiated officer contacts with citizens eventually results in fewer arrests and, hopefully, a decrease in the crime rate," he said.
When Jerman joined the police department as its new chief in October 2012, he was tapped as the city liaison to the Wellington Heights neighborhood. He said he heard from veteran officers about the neighborhood's reputation, which stemmed from activity decades ago.
"Some officers that have been here 20 to 30 years have told me 20 years ago it was not unusual to see hand-to-hand drug transactions right in front of marked police cars," he said. "That's not the case today ... .
"I have seen a continued decrease in incidents within the Wellington Heights neighborhood. I attribute that to more engagement from the residents of Wellington who care about their neighborhood."
While Wellington is seeing an increase in neighborhood involvement, the Taylor neighborhood is seeing the opposite. Kathy Potts, former president of the Taylor Neighborhood Association, said the association disbanded in December.
"We couldn't get enough people to stay involved," she said.
Taylor has seen a decrease in both calls for service and arrests in the past five years. Calls for service fell from 6,329 in 2009 to 4,676 last year.
During that time, arrests declined from 493 to 419.
Potts said part of the issue was funding. The city will provide grants of up to $3,000 for neighborhood activities, but requires matching funds up front.
When Taylor couldn't come up with any funding, they money from the city dried up, Potts said.
A year ago, the Taylor neighborhood used what funding they had to host a public safety event featuring police officers, firefighters and members of the Cedar Rapids Titans football teams. The idea was to push public safety in the neighborhood, Potts said.
While she regards the neighborhood as safe, Potts said neighborhood association meetings gave neighbors an opportunity to voice their concerns when they did arise.
"When a problem did come up, they were the place they could come to," she said.
Potts said Jerman encouraged residents to call the police when problems came up, which she believes has made people more comfortable about calling in crimes. She's still waiting to see what becomes of the Taylor Neighborhood Association.
"Right now, there are some other people saying, 'We'll take over,' but no one has signed the dotted line," she said.
While Jerman said "positive change is occurring" throughout the city, he noted there are still problem areas. Even after 102 firearms were seized last year, Jerman continues to focus his efforts on gun violence and illegal gun possession.
That's not his only concern, however.
"Burglaries are still a concern because I think that's a crime that, working with the community, we can have a positive outcome in terms of decreasing those numbers," he said.
There were 920 burglaries in the city in 2013, down from 1,218 in 2009.
"One burglary in the city is one too many," Jerman said. "But I'm realistic. What I do shoot for is decreases in those numbers."
Linda Seger, president of the Northwest Area Neighborhood Association, said the association is a key organization in her neighborhood.
"I'm really pleased to say that the neighborhood association, I feel, is pivotal," she said. "After the devastation of the flood, the neighborhood needed some type of adhesive program to pull us together. We have a very active neighborhood association."
Calls for service in the Northwest Area neighborhood decreased from 4,115 in 2009 to 3,650 in 2013, but arrests increased from 171 to 256 during that time. That hasn't stopped Seger from feeling safe in her neighborhood.
"We have burglaries, we have vandalism ... just like everywhere else in the city," she said.
As with the other neighborhood leaders, Seger credited not just the police department, but all city agencies for being responsive to neighborhood needs.
"Any time I reach out to them ... they come, they don't sit at their desk," Seger said. "They come down to the neighborhood."
While the decrease in crime in Wellington Heights is a success for the city, Jerman said he wants to see that improvement occur elsewhere in the community. He hopes their success will spur other parts of the city to form their own associations and tackle issues in their neighborhoods."If they don't already have a neighborhood association and if they can establish one, the police department is here for them," he said.