Crime-watch groups work more closely with police - and expand their activities.
BOSTON — If you live near the Dudley Square bus station in Boston, the groan of gears and the stench of diesel are constants.
On average, every 30 seconds a bus lumbers through this Roxbury neighborhood, leaving its sooty effluence behind.
At a rally here last week, residents donned surgical masks for dramatic effect and lobbied city officials for cleaner public transport.
"This is an indirect crime," says Alma Daniels, shouting to be heard over the piercing squeak of brakes and rumbling engines. "My grandkids have to breathe this dirty air and no one should have to."
Welcome to community crime watch of the '90s. What started 26 years ago as a few folks peeking out from behind their curtains has become a fixture in nearly 10,000 American communities. And its reach is widening. Neighborhood-watch groups are now tackling environmental crime, scam artists, drug houses, and attacking the roots of crime by setting up youth programs.
A key element of this change: a closer relationship with police. While many police forces have at least given lip-service to citizen crime watches, the wholesale adoption of "community policing" as an anticrime strategy means that most law-enforcement agencies are now actively encouraging watch-group expansion.
Officer Stephen Vermette's presence at the Roxbury rally is evidence of both the closer relationship and the shifting strategy as "traditional" crime rates drop.
"He's a real friend of the neighborhood," says rally member Davida Andelman, patting Officer Vermette on the shoulder. Known affectionately as "Envirocop," Mr. Vermette is spearheading environmental neighborhood policing nationwide. His mission is to educate police departments and the public on how to work together to rid communities of toxic hazards. In the case of the buses, Vermette is primarily here for moral support. But he reminds those present that a state law restricts motor vehicles from idling more than five minutes.
Typically, the environmental crimes Vermette pursues are less apparent. And not surprising, his best tips come from community service police officers and citizen groups. "People who live in neighborhoods know what's going on," says Ms. Andelman. Vermette agrees emphatically: "I need them to do my job."
Similar relationships in communities across the country are reinvigorating neighborhood crime-watch groups. "The biggest change," observes Priscilla Stegenga, director of Crime Prevention and Neighborhood Watch with the National Sheriffs' Association in Alexandria, Va., is that citizens are "more proactive."
In Baltimore, police worked with the community to open an after-school activities center. After the first year, they reported a 42 percent drop in crime in that neighborhood. The focus is on problem-solving in a mode that is win-win, says Jean O'Neil, spokeswoman for the National Crime Prevention Council in Washington. "That sense of partnership has created enormous energy."
In Everett, Wash., Kim Seavy enthuses about how his group, Grandview Resident Patrol, has gained respect. The 10-year-old effort, he says, is experiencing "not so much a revival as it is a maturing." To be part of the patrol, residents receive six hours of classroom instruction as well as 12 hours of walking a beat in teams of two. Newsletters, meetings, and training allow for continuity.
Community policing, Mr. Seavy says, is changing the paradigm. It means that the partnership between the police and community helps resolve problems and puts safeguards in place. The result is often greater mutual respect - and faster response time.
"A lot of crime prevention is people not wanting to be caught in the act of doing wrong," Seavy says during a phone interview. While talking, he is videotaping a man in a car who is drinking a beer. "I'd better go now because the officer just arrived."
The basic premise of community crime watch has remained the same since Neighborhood Watch was formalized in 1972: Citizens work with law enforcers in prevention and reporting. They may cover one block of a neighborhood, an entire city, a marina, a park, a school district, or a military base.
Last year, Grandview citizen patrolers in Everett identified and helped convict three burglars, one of whom held a family at gunpoint for cash. "With 171 uniformed police officers and 93,000 people," says Seavy, "we see ourselves as being an additional tool for law enforcement. Our philosophy is these are our streets. We have families, and we are responsible."
Success in tackling crime often emboldens people to take a more active approach to safeguard their communities from any threat to harmony. The term "neighborhood watch" has become the banner under which community pride grows. In fact, today a neighborhood watch group is apt to prefer the designation "block club" or "neighborhood association."
Many groups are now branching out and coordinating cleanup days and helping organize activities for at-risk youths who might otherwise be lured into criminal or gang activity.
In San Diego, the Neighborhood-Watch program has just started recruiting children. "KidzWatch" is geared to five- to 11-year-olds who attend an eight-week "academy" taught by police, lifeguards, and firefighters. Children, along with a parent, learn to identify potentially hazardous situations and how to report accurate information needed in an emergency.
Where the need is more urgent, citizen groups are working to reclaim their neighborhoods, not just protect them. In Roxbury, people are tackling not only the diesel fumes problem, but vacant lots, many that would qualify as toxic-waste dumps. "It's land we can't use; it threatens all of us," says Robert Terrell, director of the Washington Street Corridor Coalition.
In St. Paul, Minn., members of the Thomas Hill Block Clubs have worked to shut down scores of drug and prostitution houses. Patty Lammers, lead organizer, recalls one march in particular: "We didn't march at the owner's house, we marched at his place of employment." Neighbors knowing neighbors sounds so simple, but it's a powerful force, Ms. Lammers says.
Of course, not all neighborhood groups are successful. Common challenges include apathy, busy two-income families who "have no time," and residents with skeptical attitudes about police. New programs spring up and others fall off. An incident usually sparks a group to form or reinvigorate. But the idea of neighborhood "home improvement" is often a way to keep continuity.
One measure of the activity level across the United States is National Night Out, a celebration the first Tuesday in August. Last month, a record 31 million people in 9,400 communities in 50 states participated. Porch lights were turned on, block parties held, parades and rodeos took place, and communities adopted a Project 365 - where citizens decide to target a problem area [crime, drugs, gangs, graffiti] for the next year.
The key to longevity lies in tailoring. "Programs needs to be revamped and applied to particular communities and their needs," says Gloria Salley, community service officer with the San Diego Police Department.
Officer Salley says her department relies on public events to enlighten people and keep motivation up in the city's 4,000 crime-watch groups. One San Diego group closed down a drug house and had it sold to "decent" owners. Another group helped an elderly woman reclaim money from people who were charging her outlandish fees for taking her shopping.
Back at the rally in Boston, talk turns to solutions. Polluting buses must go, so why not bring in a modern light-rail system, suggests Robert Terrell. As environmental and transportation officials step up to the microphone to respond, Officer Vermette talks with a woman about a residential area filled with demolition debris. Often, he says, he will go after someone on an environmental crime, only to find the wrongdoer is involved in other criminal activity.
Penn Loh, associate director of Alternatives for Community & Environment, the group that initiated the rally, comments on the big picture. Whether it's called Neighborhood Watch, neighborhood association, block club, church group, or a community-development initiative, he says, the missions are similar: "A resident-based community group means people are making a commitment to improve their surroundings and work on common issues." Almost always, those issues are for better quality of life.
ABCS OF STARTING A CRIME-WATCH GROUP
A watch group is an association of neighbors who look out for each other - their safety, their family members' well-being, their property - and alert police to suspicious activities or crimes. Crime watch groups or block clubs have proven to be one of the most effective and least expensive ways to prevent crime.
If you aren't aware of a community watch association in your area, contact your local law-enforcement agency.
The National Crime Prevention Council, a nonprofit organization in Washington, helps educate people on how to build safer communities. It offers these tips on growing a successful crime-watch group or block club.
* Hold regular meetings to help residents get to know one another and to collectively decide on program strategies and activities.
* Consider linking with an existing organization such as a citizens' association, community development office, tenants' association, or housing authority.
* Canvas door to door to recruit members.
* Involve everyone - young and old, single and married, renter and homeowner.
* Gain support from the police or sheriff's office. This is crucial to a watch group's credibility. These agencies are the major sources of information on local crime patterns, home security, and other crime prevention, education, and crime reporting.
* Get information out quickly. Share all kinds of news - quash rumors. For a high-tech watch, use electronic bulletin boards and faxes.
* Gather the facts about crime in your neighborhood. Check police reports, do victimization surveys, and learn residents' perceptions about crime. Often residents' opinions are not supported by facts, and accurate information can reduce fear of crime.
* Environment (such as abandoned cars or overgrown vacant lots) can contribute to crime. Sponsor cleanups, encourage residents to beautify the area, and ask them to turn on outdoor lights at night.
The council also suggests that neighborhoods celebrate successes and recognize volunteers' contributions through such events as awards ceremonies, dinners, and parties.
CRIME WATCH CONTACTS
* The National Crime
1700 K Street, NW, Washington, DC 20006-3817
* National Sheriff's Association
1450 Duke St.
Alexandria, VA 22314
* National Association of Town Watch
P.O. Box 303
1 Wynnewood Road, Suite 102
Wynnewood, PA 19096
* The Community Watch Project
* Neighborhood Watch
on the Internet
* National Citizens' Crime Prevention Campaign