Columbia City Got Rid Of Bad Guys - And Good? -- Critics Call Canine Corps A Vigilante Group

On this everyone in Columbia City agrees: The neighborhood has been cleaned up. The dopers, dealers and prostitutes have moved farther down Rainier Avenue South, out of sight, out of mind.

"Transformed" is the word Ray Akers likes to use, and he uses it with dramatic flourish, as in "Our neighborhood has been completely transf-o-r-m-e-d." Akers is the leader of the Columbia City Canine Corps, a group of about two dozen homeowners and their dogs who every night for the past year have patrolled Columbia City's streets.

The corps is largely credited for the change in the neighborhood. But a growing number of residents and business owners are asking, "What price transformation?"

A small but increasingly vocal group claims that the canine corps, in its zeal to drive away bad guys, is also driving away good guys - customers, patrons, walkers, joggers and visitors. Critics say the corps often acts like a vigilante group, harassing, intimidating, questioning and bullying at random, with emphasis against young, black men.

"You don't ask for ID when you're not a cop. You don't tell grown people not to jaywalk, and you don't ask `What's going on?' when nothing's going on," said Marci Johnson, a patron of Angie's Tavern who said she has witnessed such harassment.

"The dopers aren't standing on Rainier anymore because they're scared of the dogs," Johnson said. "I'm scared of the dogs. I know other people are, too. They just don't come around anymore."

Doug Barnes, a neighborhood activist and member of the local merchants' association, said he has been fielding more and more complaints from people - most of them from African Americans.

Barnes, who is white, said the mere sight of a predominantly white group patrolling with dogs in a predominantly black neighborhood harkens back to images of Selma, Ala., in the 1960s.

But it goes beyond just visual snapshots to actual behavior, said John "Bear" Scott, who works in the new Freeway Hall in Columbia City.

"They're always so super polite to me. I'm an older white man, 48 years old. They do not appear to have the same kind of civility when I've seen them encounter young black men or even middle-aged black men," Scott said. "They would say `Good evening, how are you?' to me and just stare at a black person standing right next to me."

Scott said this summer he saw one of the group's large dogs attack a black teenager on his way to catch a bus. "The dog was barking, chasing after him, and the young man was kicking at him, yelling `Get away from me!' "

Said a white tavern owner who didn't want to be named:

"Over 95 percent of my patrons in the evenings are black. That's greatly diminished. They've plain told me they have money to spend on beer, but they're going to go somewhere where they don't have a bunch of goddamn white people with dogs after them."

Akers, in his outspoken, strident style, balks at all this:

"We've heard it all before," he said. "There's no truth to it. It's just a big bunch of hot air. I'm happy if they feel uncomfortable around us if they're dealing drugs or picking up johns.

"If business is hurting, we regret that. Maybe they can attract more wholesome citizens."

Akers and all corps members, including the African-American members, say the charges of racism are ludicrous.

"Our members are gay, straight, white, black, everything," Akers said. "We have all the bases covered. What we are is anti-crime. If people have problems with that, let them write angry letters to the editor."

Police have been cautiously supportive of the group ever since the first foot and paw started on patrol duty about 11 months ago.

The group formed because the street scene in Columbia City, by most everyone's account, had gotten out of hand. At night, drug dealers and prostitutes would take over the entire business district. The sound of gunshots became routine.

To the canine corps' credit, it has not only cleaned up that scene, it has also spurred the city to fix roads, install new street lights and garbage bins, paint over graffiti and tow away abandoned cars and large appliances.

Akers has been the force behind much of the effort.

Even his critics say he is a great neighborhood lobbyist. But some would say it's the strength of his personality that has gotten him and the canine corps in trouble.

Some critics, in fact, have no problem with the canine corps at all but with Akers.

Nancy Bratton, owner of Matthiesen's Flowers in the heart of Columbia City, said that one night last spring, as she was driving home from church, she slowly drove through a crosswalk just as people were reaching the other side of the street. The people crossing happened to be the canine corps. Bratton said Akers yelled something at her, then hit the back of her brand-new van. She pointed out a 12-inch dent in the van.

Akers claims Bratton sped through the crosswalk and that the van hit him. Police talked to Akers for investigation of assault but eventually dropped the case.

Akers, meanwhile, is gearing up his group for its second year. He has vowed to continue patrolling despite the mounting complaints. Not long ago you couldn't feel safe walking through Columbia City, he'll remind you. Akers remembers all too well. The bad guys are out of sight for the time being, but, for him, they are not out of mind.