Neighborhood crime-watch groups: fighting back against crime and fear

According to recent public-opinion polls and a host of earnest political candidates, an issue of major importance to Bostonians is crime. Recent initiatives by the Boston Police Department to resume foot patrols in the city's neighborhoods are seen as a progressive step in battling crime. But beyond that, many Bostonians are finding that they, too, can play a part in crime prevention - through neighborhood crime-watch groups. And some of these groups have expanded to include support from private institutions.

Suffolk County Sheriff Dennis J. Kearney (a recent mayoral candidate) says that the emphasis of police work is changing. In the '70s, he says, ''the emphasis was on quick response - how fast an officer could respond to a crime.'' In the '80s, he says, emphasis has shifted to crime prevention.

Statistics pointing to an increase of crime, coupled with public concern, have forced this shift, he says. He sees the return of the foot patrolman as a vital step to deterring crime. Yet there is another trend that he finds heartening - a move toward neighborhood crime-watch groups.

Rather than hiding behind locked doors and barred windows, many Bostonians are discovering that crime prevention is not something that must be left entirely to the police. Rather, it is something they can become involved in.

Participation can be limited to keeping a wary eye cocked on what's going on in the neighborhood. Or it can include volunteering to patrol neighborhood streets a few nights a month with other area residents - reporting incidents of crime and potentially dangerous situations. Neighborhood watch groups, say many, not only help deter crime, they also reduce another neighborhood blight - fear.

Neighborhood crime-watch groups are springing up across the city. Generally, they are small - organized around one block. Statistics proving that such groups deter crime are sketchy. But many say that there are other important benefits from such activity.

Georgette Watson, assistant director of the Neighborhood Crime Prevention Network (NCPN), says that these groups do a lot of good by bringing people together. Getting together and meeting your neighbors, helps create a much greater sense of community responsibility and care. That, in turn, helps reduce a sense of fear, she says.

The NPCN, sponsored by the privately run Justice Resource Institute, helps begin and support efforts to form crime-watch groups. The network is currently working with about 100 groups in Dorchester, Roxbury, the South End, Mattapan, and in Cambridge.

Officer Aaron Gross, a Boston police community-service officer agrees with Ms. Watson. He says that such groups are ''very useful.'' In fact, he asserts, these groups do deter crime. Criminals aren't likely to go into an area they know is being patrolled, he says.

Now, a new kind of watch group is forming in the Fenway. This one promises to be a good deal larger and more formally organized. The organizers of StreetSAFE (Safety Alliance For Everyone) plan to equip area residents with radios, train them to patrol conscientiously, send them out in groups all over the far-flung sections of the Fenway, and back them up with support from area institutions.

StreetSAFE is being sponsored by the Boston-Fenway Program, a nonprofit organization of several Fenway institutions that is working to revitalize the area. Members include: Northeastern University; the Boston Symphony Orchestra; Boston University; The First Church of Christ, Scientist; the Museum of Fine Arts; and others.

The key word in the StreetSAFE venture is ''organization.'' A full-time director and assistant director have been hired to run the program. An independent consulting firm was hired to conduct an opinion poll of area residents and employees on the subject of crime. Another consulting firm specializing in public safety wrote the group's training manual and is conducting the training program.

StreetSAFE is getting off to a rather slow start. There are about 20 volunteers in the first training session. But Marian S. Vitagliano, assistant director of the program, is optimistic. She says she expects that by the end of 1984 StreetSAFE will have patrols covering the streets in both the East and West Fenway, as well as on St. Botolph Street.

Referring to an opinion poll conducted in the area, Ms. Vitagliano says that she's surprised by the level of community involvement residents show, and she says she is confident that ''once we prove ourselves and are more visible, more people will call to volunteer.''

Most watch groups go out of their way to avoid confrontation, but in StreetSAFE it is imperative. The mandate: Violence will not be tolerated. StreetSAFE does not represent vigilantism, its organizers say. It's simply a neighborhood support group.

There might seem to be some danger of over-institutionalizing, over-consulting, and over-organizing the type of group that is working on a small, informal basis all over the city. But the danger seems slight. As in any neighborhood group, the success will depend largely on the dedication of the members.

A look at the participants is encouraging. StreetSAFE volunteers say that they want to promote a better sense of community awareness, to help people look out for one another, to lessen fear, and to work to improve the area's reputation.

People across the city are standing up to two oppressive problems - crime and fear; and one of the best signs is that the people are standing up together.

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