As property crimes increase, more neighbors are on patrol
Armed with cellphones, flashlights, and Twitter posts, they can make a positive difference.
It's not unusual for Jennifer Litkowiec to have problems with her husband's off-the-wall ideas, but this one took the cake.Skip to next paragraph
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So what was Jason Litkowiec's plan? Shine a light on the night. "I finally had enough," he says.
Against his wife's loud protestations, the young steamfitter joined a dozen other neighborhood men and set up the Rosewood night patrol.
Armed with nothing but flashlights and cellphones, the group followed suspicious cars and even set up an impromptu sting when a neighbor left town and forgot to close his garage door. They called in police to arrest the suspects after a brief chase.
High foreclosure rates, a spike in brazen break-ins, and slashed police budgets are causing turmoil in America's transitioning urban communities, auguring what Atlanta anticrime activist Larry Ely calls an "urban war."
So far, this is a largely unarmed conflict defined by nighttime jogger patrols with flashing headlamps, unofficial block patrols with cop-like "beats," and neighborhood all-Twitter alarms – short text messages dubbed "BOLO" or "be on the lookout" when something potentially dangerous or illegal happens.
A sense of humor helps. Some who take part have signed on to the "World Superhero Registry," an online outfit where a member must be one "who does good deeds or fights crime while in costume."
But like other historical flash points, when the public becomes personally involved in crime fighting, vigilantism becomes a threat, experts say, especially if government appears powerless.
"When you go broke, be creative. Outsource criminal justice back to the people," says Peter Scharf, a criminologist at Tulane University in New Orleans. "When you go through a very chaotic period with crime, people are going to become more innovative."
Hard numbers on the rise in amateur crime fighters don't exist, but policing experts say the trend is noticeable. At the National Sheriffs Association (NSA), which runs some 26,000 Neighborhood Watch groups, activity has risen to nearly the levels of the winter of 2001, following 9/11.
NSA crime prevention specialist Robbie Woodson links the uptick directly to the Congressional decision in 2007 to cut community policing grants by 68 percent, much of which had been aimed at low-level crime in transitional neighborhoods. Ms. Woodson says President Obama's inaugural call for "a new era of responsibility" took direct aim at what she sees as a widening gap – both perceived and real – between criminal activity and the ability of police to control it.