Crime watching is an acquired skill

Published 12:00 am Sunday, November 24, 2002

In Suffolk, residents and business owners are bonding with police officers in their fight against crime. Through &uot;Neighborhood Watch&uot; groups, they have regained control over their neighborhoods, and in some cases caused drastic reductions in drug dealers working street corners, purse snatchings, breaking and enterings and other evils.

Today, thanks to the ever-watchful eyes of friends and neighbors, Suffolk Police have been assisted in apprehending criminals, and the good people of the city find they can take comfort in the fact that the eyes of their neighbors are upon their homes and property.

Speak with the Rev. Howard Skeeter, the current chaplain for the Suffolk Police Department, and he’s the first to describe what police officers must face each day in the line of duty. He rides with them day and night and he’s witnessed scenes that no human should have to face. Still, he’s there for the officers and he’d like to see more citizens committed to helping law enforcement.

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&uot;They can help just by becoming a member of the Neighborhood Watch groups,&uot; said Skeeter. &uot;The concept was put into action back in Colonial Jamestown in 1615 when people organized to prevent crime, reduce lawlessness, and ensure community harmony in the settlements. There were no police officers, so they established the &uot;Watch and Ward,&uot; to deter theft and disobedience by colonists.&uot;

The concept of watching grew over the years, but eventually died off as families grew apart and neighbors began closing themselves off inside air conditioned homes to watch television instead of their streets and properties. In the 1970s, the National Sheriff’s Association started the Neighborhood Watch programs, teaching people they must band together to keep their homes safe havens. They asked the question: is it safe to protect your house when crime is happening all around?

Criminals have acted upon the breakdown in the community for years, and they’ve taken what they wanted.

In Suffolk, the groups have become actively involved with police and officers are not only locking up more criminals than ever, but they also roll up their sleeves and go to work cleaning debris and weeds out of neighborhoods. Give the criminals no place to hide is the concept behind that effort. Also, Police Chief William A. Freeman believes that he and his department should prove they care for the people of Suffolk and they are willing to go that extra mile.

For instance, the community of Skeetertown recently received its Neighborhood Watch sign and it’s now in place warning &uot;evil-doers&uot; they are under observation. The neighborhood of Williamstown was also the site of a recent &uot;clean-up, fix-up, paint-up&uot; campaign, and not only did the police chief and several officers spend that day working, but also City Councilman Bobby Ralph joined the people of that community in their efforts. They took 3,500 pounds of debris away, painted and repaired a homeowner’s two-story house, generally had a wonderful day and even a street party complete with food.

Much of the food at this type of activity comes from the &uot;Citizen’s Academy Alumni of Suffolk (CAAS),&uot; and its founder Donna Perry. She is a graduate of the Citizen’s Police Academy (CPA) where she not only gained a new respect for law enforcement and the job they do, but also was educated in how she could be the eyes and ears of the Kingsboro neighborhood.

Connie Scott is another academy graduate, and she works tirelessly to organize the Neighborhood Watch meetings and was instrumental in establishing that group. Through the efforts of both, crime is down in Kingsboro.

Neighborhood Watch groups are most often established once someone graduates from the CPA. That intensive training arms people with the tools needed to fight crime in their streets: knowledge, a pen and paper, and a telephone.

One recent graduate of the academy, Carolyn Shakoor, said she attended because she was first of all, curious about law enforcement. The 69-year-old has a son who is a police officer in another city.

&uot;I learned about the type of things they are subjected to each day,&uot; said Shakoor. &uot;I was shocked about some of the incidents they must handle when responding to emergency calls and I must say I have a new respect for law enforcement.&uot;

Anne Hill, a retired school teacher, said she always wanted to devote time to her East Washington Street community and learning about how to prevent crime from eating away at the neighborhood.

&uot;I thought this would be a wonderful opportunity to get first-hand experience of finding out exactly what needed to be done and working from there,&uot; said Hill. &uot;The instructors have done an excellent job of teaching us about how to respond when we see illegal activities and I believe I am now prepared to help get our Neighborhood Watch started.&uot;

Andrew Kuenzer, a resident of Berkshire Meadows, signed up for training to learn more about what police officers do in their jobs.

&uot;Now, with all I’ve learned, I want to start a watch group in our neighborhood,&uot; said Kuenzer. &uot;This training truly opens your eyes and prepares you to be a better citizen, helping to improve life in our respective communities.&uot;

Suffolk Police Auxiliary Sergeant Don Thompson assists police officers, and he’s a strong advocate for Neighborhood Watch groups.

&uot;I’ve been here for 14 years as a volunteer because I feel I am doing something to help police and our community,&uot; said Thompson. &uot;I am always encouraged and honored when I see the assembly room filling up with people with a desire to learn how to defend their neighborhoods by helping police.&uot;

Establishing a Neighborhood Watch takes a good volunteer base of people with a strong desire to improve the areas in which they live. The first step toward initiating a watch is simply the desire to be a good neighbor, said Suffolk Police Officer John Cooke.

&uot;All communities should have a Neighborhood Watch program,&uot; he added. &uot;This program isn’t just about crime, but also about being a good neighbor. The first step in getting a program established is banding the residents together and then choosing your block captain. That person should be a motivator, one who can help maintain interest even when there is no crime problem to solve.&uot;

Once the meetings begin and participants establish their &uot;phone tree,&uot; the link to each neighbor and the police department, the Suffolk Police Department’s Community Services Section will order a Neighborhood Watch sign for the community.

Wesley Benn of the Skeetertown community recently accepted the sign for that area. He said the Neighborhood Watch group there was greatly assisted and assured by working on establishing the program with police officers.

&uot;I’ve been a member of the Skeetertown Civic Group for some time and I was asked to be the coordinator of this effort,&uot; said Benn. &uot;We had officers come to the civic club meetings and they worked wonderfully well with us. We were trying to develop a watch and the police officers told us there is a grant that pays for them as long as we followed the guidelines in establishing the watch. Up until we established our Neighborhood Watch, we’d had several incidents and since we’ve been working together crime is down. This is a wonderful tool, and with the focus on Homeland Security, this is a great program.&uot;

Officers Jay Jackson and John Cooke usually have the honor of delivering that signs to the neighborhood residents. They and the block captain find an appropriate place to hang the sign as an unmistakable warning to anyone who has an idea about corrupting that neighborhood.

For more information on how to enroll as a candidate for the Citizen’s Police Academy or to learn more about the Neighborhood Watch program, call Cooke and Jackson at 923-2358. The officers are also available by appointment to churches, civic groups, clubs or neighborhood meetings to discuss the watch program.