Thursday, August 03, 2006

Neighborhood Watch helps prevent crimes

By Elaine Shein

When you live in a rural community, you often know your neighbors for a few miles around. You meet them at local events, you call them when the cattle have escaped through a broken fence and you share local gossip.

City life is different. You can live across the street or down the block from neighbors and not know even what their faces look like.

The only time you might see them is when you’re collecting your mail at the same time, dealing with some weather related incident, being approached by them for fundraising events for their kids or they’re attempting to get you signed up for a political party during an election year.

Sometimes it might be a crime in the area that stirs neighbors to finally unite in an effort to share information and prevent further crimes from taking place.

The Neighborhood Watch program is a good one that is built on the latter reason to unite neighbors, but also gives an opportunity for neighbors to meet each other socially.

This week across the country there was an event called National Night Out, encouraging people to get together with events such as potluck dinners so they can get to know each other better but also learn tips on how to fight crime.

In Salem, Ore. alone there were a record 132 block parties held on August 1. Police representatives received more than a hundred requests to attend these parties, and really attempted to get to as many as possible. Some officers attended several in one evening, with helpers to keep them on track.

Attending the local potluck event in my area, I realized just how many people I didn’t know from down the street or even within a 4-block area. There were the familiar greetings of “which street do you live on? Which house is yours?” but also questions like “What vehicle do you drive? Do you have any kids? Pets?”

Depending on your answers, it could open up a great conversation or lead to some awkward moments. “Oh, that’s YOUR dog that barks all the time? That car that speeds all the time belongs to YOUR husband? You mean those loud teenagers that hang out at 2 a.m. on our street with the blaring stereos are YOUR horrible, undisciplined offspring?”

And of course there is the realization that those ignored healthy dandelions hidden in your yard might be the ones happily replanting themselves in the yards of these nice neighbors.

Awkward moments aside, the meeting was a success. Contact sheets were handed out so people know who their neighbors are and how to contact them at work and home in case of emergency. The police officer gave details on programs to prevent car thefts, mark possessions better in case they are stolen, and encouraged people to know more about each other — such as when are people away on vacation, or on prolonged business trips — so they can contact the police department if something suspicious happens in the area.
Among the suggestion was that people write or engrave OR (for Oregon) and their drivers’ license number on possessions so if they’re stolen, police can quickly return the possessions if they are found later.

Another suggestion was that people buy $2 stickers from the police department to put on vehicles. If that vehicle with its sticker is spotted on the streets between 1 a.m. and 5 a.m., the police will stop it to ensure the car has not been stolen.

While some people thought this was a great idea, other people admitted being paranoid of having stickers that invite police to follow and stop them. After all, what if that person was occasionally out driving during those times? Or maybe was not wearing a seatbelt or had a few too many social drinks earlier?

The police officer gave a lot of statistics at the block party, but perhaps the most convincing one was that 98 percent of the crimes done in this city are in neighborhoods that don’t have Neighborhood Watch programs.

On that reason alone people should consider bonding together under Neighborhood Watch programs more to help prevent crimes in their areas, whether in urban or rural areas.

In rural areas, distances between neighbors leads to crime problems since they can’t see each other’s houses or fields. It has been terrible that rural areas have been hit for theft for everything from fuel to cattle to irrigation equipment parts that are resold as scrap metal by meth addicts.

But hopefully warning signs and vigilance by neighbors will help protect areas in the future while also encouraging people to feel more like a protective community, rather than a group of single vulnerable dwellings.

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