The city’s newly rejuvenated neighborhood watch took over Central Park Tuesday to recruit new members and persuade residents to fight back against crime.
Under new organization, with one overall president and a captain for each sector of the city, membership has boomed from 20 to 120 in just six months, President Fred Lee said.
He took over in February after determining that the old Schenectady Neighborhood Watch had drifted far from its roots.
“It was doing a lot of good things but not a lot of watching the neighborhood,” he said. “It was running social events, giving out free food — good things, but… .”
He also found that virtually all of the watch’s radios were broken and that most of its members were long gone. Number after number on the roster was disconnected, he said.
He got grants for new radios — the watch now has 22, roughly half as many as it needs, Lee said — and the police began training new watchers to patrol their areas.
Police also trained members to be window watchers, writing down license plates and describing suspicious persons. That drew in many members, including Sean Allen, who used his observational skills to catch burglars who had repeatedly broken into his car.
He installed motion-detector lights and waited patiently for the lights to come on.
“It’s all about seeing, hearing and reporting,” Allen said. “If something seems out of the ordinary, write it down, keep track of it. I watched. We finally caught the kids.”
When Allen moved to Mont Pleasant, he remembered that experience and agreed to join the watch and keep an eye on everybody’s property.
“My main reason’s right here: my two girls,” he said, adding, “It lets people know they’re being watched; maybe it’ll get the drugs out of the neighborhood.”
In his old Hamilton Hill neighborhood, the watch is still struggling to form. But Darlene Lee has signed up eight members, plus herself and her husband.
“We’re slow,” she said. “But there are many, many good people on Hamilton Hill. It’s just a matter of putting it out, like having an event like this. It just takes time.”
On Tuesday, she decorated her booth with news stories of recent crime in the neighborhood, including a murder. She hoped the collection would make residents realize that a watch is essential.
“This is our reality,” she said.
Mayor Brian U. Stratton is hoping that more people sign up.
“No matter how many police officers we are able to hire, we could never replace the value of committed neighbors that are looking out for one another, that are willing to tell the police what they see. It’s very encouraging that we’re seeing more of that, not less,” he said.
Overall, the watch is catching on. In Bellevue, where dual neighborhood associations agreed to merge so that one could focus solely on neighborhood watch, the watch is now so organized after just a few months that Lee called it a model for every watch group.
The group started a Web site, www.bellevueneighborhoodwatch.com, where residents can report problems anonymously. Watch patrollers can also enter a password-protected area to log every incident they encountered during their patrol. Police can access that log at any time.
The group has just four radios, shared among eight patrollers, but has 20 to 25 members at every meeting. Many of those will become window watchers after a training session on Aug. 27, organizer Toni Pallotolo said.
“I think it’s a great success,” she said. “The watch we tried to get up and running two years ago was one-tenth of what it is now.”
And when she patrols now, there are so many others walking through their neighborhoods that she knows she’s not alone.
“There’s almost always somebody on patrol in Schenectady. You can call on the radio at 11 o’clock at night and get an answer,” she said. “And soon I expect we’ll have an overnight shift.”
But that will require new recruits.
Lee mobilizes newcomers by telling them that they can’t sit back and expect crime to vanish without their help.
“We can’t expect the Police Department to do everything,” he said.
Richard Garneau of central State Street starts his pitch by demanding, “Well, are you satisfied with your neighborhood?”
Too often, he said, residents tell him they don’t dare report crimes.
“A lot of people are afraid; they’re afraid if something happens and they’re a witness, the perpetrator retaliates,” Garneau said.
He urges those residents to become window watchers and report crimes anonymously.
But the watch needs patrollers as well, Lee said. And it’s not just to stop crime.
The watch reports broken streetlights, clogged storm drains and other problems, Lee said. And the patrols restore a sense of ownership of the streets, diminishing the power of the criminal element.
“It’s taking command of your own neighborhood,” Lee said.
Sometimes a quick success is enough to encourage a group to form.
On DeCamp Avenue, on the north side of Central Park, residents were dismayed to see drug deals in May. First they complained to each other. Then they watched suspiciously. And finally, when enough was enough, they called police.
Officers added patrols to the area and the drug activity stopped, watch captain David Tobey said.
Impressed, members decided to organize.
“We want to make sure our neighborhood stays nice,” said Marj Adams.
In three months, 30 residents joined up. Adams was one of the few who agreed to patrol.
“I just figured somebody’s got to do it,” she said.
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