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Trayvon Martin case puts focus on citizen crime-prevention programs

How is a Neighborhood Watch  program supposed to work?

Neighborhood watch signs have been present in neighborhoods for years, but what do they really mean?

A computer programmer for Wells Fargo, John Bartholomew doesn’t own a gun; in fact he says he’s never even shot one and certainly wouldn’t carry one, even though for going-on 18 years he’s been a Neighborhood Watch captain in White Bear Township.

“If there was a problem and I needed to look at night, I’d carry a flashlight and a cell phone with speed dial to the sheriff’s office. You never intervene. You never confront,’’ says Bartholomew, 63. 

The shooting in late February of a 17-year-old African-American male in Sanford, Fla., by a 28-year-old Hispanic-American male on crime watch in his gated residential community has sparked a national conversation on race, gun laws and, not least, citizen crime-prevention programs.

“He was, in my estimation, stepping out of bounds with what he did,’’ says Bartholomew about George Zimmerman, who shot and killed unarmed Trayvon Martin.

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In crime watch programs here and around the nation, citizen volunteers are trained to be on the lookout for criminal or suspicious activity in the areas around their homes and businesses, and then report it to law enforcement. 

Proponents say neighborhood watch programs like those around the Twin Cities and the state are about building community as well as helping ensure public safety, a way of enlisting ordinary citizens to be “eyes and ears’’ for law enforcement — not armed enforcers.

Others could argue the program encourages trigger-happy citizens to take the law into their own hands.   

“How it’s been twisted, supposedly you’ve got a vigilante…as a patrolman. That’s not the focus of Neighborhood watch,’’ says Randy Gustafson, public information officer for the Ramsey County Sheriff’s Department, which runs a Neighborhood Watch program for seven East Metro suburban cities, including White Bear Township.

‘Community working together’

Instead the program – started 40 years ago by the National Sheriffs’ Association,  numbering 22,000 watch groups nationally and now introducing its own app —   is  “community working together” and “neighbors helping neighbors,” Gustafson says. Through the sheriff’s department there are 191 registered neighborhood groups, up 23 from last year. More than half have female watch captains.

“We teach observation skills and to call 911, not to take matters into their own hands,’’ he stresses. The program, which does not require participants have criminal background checks, does not sanction block captains to be armed, he says. “That’s why you have deputies.’’

A description of the program on a Ramsey County website seems to second that: “It should be noted Neighborhood Watch is not a vigilante force working outside the normal procedures of law enforcement; is not designed for participants to take personal risks to prevent crime…”  There is no prohibition against guns for a straightforward reason: the law allows people with gun permits to carry guns. The site also provides crime prevention information, available for translation to a long list of languages.

(Interestingly, a manual prepared by the National Sheriffs’ Association seems to describe a more aggressive program:  “Some groups mobilize to patrol neighborhoods…”)

Here, the message to crime watch volunteers is clear, underscored by John Eastham, the Ramsey County Sheriff’s Department deputy who heads up crime prevention services.

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“They are our eyes and ears. They are a force multiplier for the sheriff’s department for observing and letting us know what is going on,’’ explains Eastham, but that means picking up the phone, not a gun.

“You interject a citizen into a possible criminal act and something can go wrong,’’ he says, as it did in Florida.

“It was a tragedy, no matter how you slice it,’’ Eastham says. “Don’t get involved if you can stay out of it. If it’s happening right now, it’s suspicious or you think somebody may be injured, call 911 and tell us what’s going on but stay safe.’’

The importance of citizens’ observational skills is stressed at quarterly meetings for watch captains, where they are also briefed on crime activity in their communities.

Eastham says neighbors know one another’s “idiosyncrasies.” He often uses a fictitious example: A deputy driving through a neighborhood would likely consider very odd an adult man wearing a tutu to mow his lawn and investigate, whereas neighbors know this guy does that every week. “Think about it. You know your neighbors, their idiosyncrasies,’’ he says.  

Watch captains also advise neighbors to alert one another if they are going out of town and leaving their home empty so if strangers are spotted around the house a 911 call will be made.

Burglar in custody

Alert citizens have foiled crimes, he says.

A Little Canada resident called 911 upon seeing an adult male running through back yards and taking cover in pine trees. Sheriff’s deputies arrived to chase down the running man minutes before a startled homeowner returning from work called to report his home has been burglarized.

“We had a burglar in custody before we had even gotten the call about the burglary,’’ Eastham says.  

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Other times, deputies get reasonable answers for what appeared to be suspicious activity.

Not a dense and diverse, inner-city neighborhood, Bartholomew’s is rather mostly white and located in suburban White Bear Township surrounded by natural wetlands, White Bear Lake and highways.

“Our idea is the neighbors get to know each other, you watch out for each other,’’ Bartholomew says. Meeting for the annual August Night to Unite neighborhood get-together and usually at least one more time each year, neighbors socialize, talk about any crime or other concerns.

One year Bartholomew represented his neighbors before the township board to request six street lights, stop signs to slow traffic and speed limit signs. Their request was granted.

Through his years as watch captain for 65 homes along Margaret, Park and Whitaker streets, he recollects maybe four home burglaries as well as the occasional car break-in, including at least one incident where a citizen alerted police to a burglary in progress.

A woman out gardening became suspicious after seeing the same truck driving slowly up and down her street three or four times, as if casing the area. She called 911 and deputies arrived to chase down and apprehend burglars with their loot. Seems one resident had left a ladder against his house, an open invitation to easily break in.