As property crimes increase, more neighbors are on patrol
Armed with cellphones, flashlights, and Twitter posts, they can make a positive difference.
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"It's an absolute perfect storm," says Woodson. "[Federal policing grants] were cut before the economic crisis, which is just now playing out on the law enforcement front. And now you have people being laid off, and some of those people are going to start stealing in a variety of different ways."Skip to next paragraph
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Rising property crimes a factor
Though violent crimes are down across the nation, property crimes by many accounts are rising. (FBI crime figures for 2008 won't be available until fall.) Transitional neighborhoods around major urban centers are particularly prone to the cause-and-effect between rising crime and community patrols, as national migration figures slow and more and more Americans hunker down.
What seems to have sparked many groups isn't just low level crime, but high profile incidents and brazen tactics like bashing in front doors to get at large flat-screen TVs. The murder in Atlanta of a bartender by four armed bandits on Jan. 7 resulted in the creation of a group called Atlantans Together Against Crime (ATAC). In the span of two weeks, the group had almost 5,000 members on Facebook.
"I'm not sure the total level of crime is changing significantly, and the conveyor belt that produces crime is more or less the same," says Robert Friedmann, a criminologist at Georgia State University. "The problem comes when you have a human story that suddenly has a new twist."
Two years ago, Lisa Cater was part of a real estate boomlet in East Atlanta Village, a community about three miles from downtown, as mostly white suburbanites flooded back to the city. But now that movement has largely stopped, many houses are empty, and criminals have become more brazen and open, she says.
"This is the worst I've ever seen it," she says, describing what she calls a "property-driven turf war."
With her partner, Maria Midboe, Ms. Cater patrols her street in an imposing black Jeep, often using a high-power spotlight to shine on suspicious characters.
"The only way we can make a difference is to take personal responsibility and do something about it," she says.
Amateur crime fighters like Cater can be found across the nation.
In Plano, Texas, residents created a watch group to look after vacant and abandoned homes. In New Orleans, groups like Silence is Violence are using Twitter alarms and cell phone messages to fight that city's violent crime wave.
Clayton County, Ga., is one of a growing number of police departments putting arrest and warrant information online in map form to give residents a sense of who has had previous run-ins with the law.