Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Keeping neighborhoods safe -- Citizen watch groups bind communities together

By Audrey Wong

SUISUN CITY -- Thirty years ago Mary Smith fell in love with a house in Old Town Suisun City which cost only $10,000.

Although the home was everything Smith wanted, she didn't care for some of her neighbors who caused trouble. Fortunately there were other neighbors Smith could rely on. She banded together with them. To this day, the group of Old Town residents inform each other about crime and other problems in their community.

She estimates 21 people are involved with the Old Town Neighborhood Watch program. Smith recalled how nearly eight years ago the group helped her handle a resident who shot out her window and took drugs.

"I would call the police then call all the neighbors," Smith said. "Then we would come on the porch and watch him get arrested."

Old Town's Neighborhood Watch group has been around about 30 years and operated before it officially became part of the Neighborhood Watch program, Smith said.

Suisun City has about 60 active Neighborhood Watch groups but the police department doesn't track how long groups have been in existence, said Joanne Ledford, a crime prevention specialist for Suisun City police.

One of the longest running Neighborhood Watch groups in Suisun City is Shasta Court, which has been around for 21 years, Ledford said. Another long-standing group is the Neighborhood Watch on Whitney Avenue, which has operated for 16 years, Ledford said.

Fairfield has 300 Neighborhood Watch groups, said Kathy Dineen, a crime prevention specialist for the Fairfield Police Department. The department doesn't keep track of which group is the oldest but has a number of groups that have been around longer than 10 years. For example, Jasmine Street Neighborhood Watch has been together for 22 years, the McKinley Street group has been around for 18 years and East Colorado Street group operated for 15 years.

A sense of purpose

Neighborhood Watch groups serve as the eyes and ears of the police. Members also take care of each other. When a group forms, Ledford will meet with members to teach them when to call 911 and how to report incidents. Each group has a block captain and block captains meet four times a year. Members will have a phone tree of the group and will meet with police officers to discuss problems.

Uniting often benefits the denizens of a block.

Mary Dooley, who formed the Shasta Court Neighborhood Watch, remembered how 10 years ago members teamed up against a couple who were involved in drugs. When suspicious people drove their vehicles into the court, neighbors wrote down license plate numbers and reported them to the police or to Dooley.

On Jasmine Street, George and Kay Locatelli will watch the homes of neighbors who are on vacation. The block captains will pick up mail and keep track of people who come to the house. And members will report any suspicious looking people on their block.

Constant communication and long-time residents keep the Old Town group going, Smith said. When Old Town members meet, they gather on the porch of Smith's neighbor for a glass of wine. They may discuss things such as who is breaking car windows and other events in their part of Suisun City. Smith may call fellow members about the latest crime or neighbors will call Smith to learn what she heard on her police scanner. Smith describes the group as good friends.

The Jasmine group also has many members who have lived on the block for decades. When the Locatellis first moved to Jasmine Street, their neighbors were in their 60s, Kay Locatelli said. Now they're in their 80s and 90s.

Jasmine residents are so close that when an elderly member died, that member's granddaughter mentioned the Jasmine Street Neighborhood Watch in her eulogy, Kay Locatelli said.

Block captains such as the Locatellis and Dooley try to get new neighbors involved. When there is a newcomer, they introduce themselves and urge them to join Neighborhood Watch. Recently the Locatellis celebrated National Night Out, a nationwide Neighborhood Watch event, and invited new families to a block party.

What can cause a group to unravel is when a block captain moves away and members lose touch with the police, Dineen said.

Janie Williams started a Neighborhood Watch for James Street in January to address troublesome residents. She wants the same longevity as the Jasmine Street group.

"Hopefully I can say in 25 years that we're together," Williams said.

Reach Audrey Wong at 427-6951 or awong@dailyrepublic.net.

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