When the Schenectady Neighborhood Watch phone rings with a report of a lost child, Fred Lee wishes a team could spring into action.
But sometimes, everyone is asleep. Or at work. Or away on vacation.
There’s just so few people left in the neighborhood watch that sometimes there’s no one available to answer a call, he said.
“Generally, we do respond, but I can’t guarantee it. I’d like to guarantee it,” said Lee, who oversees the citywide watch. “We need more neighborhood watchers.”
Neighborhood Watch is known for those who look out their windows or patrol on the streets, acting as the eyes and ears of the police. They’re supposed to know their neighborhood well enough that they can tell when something is out of place, and be observant enough to give police clear details when they witness a crime.
But, Lee said, they’re far more often called out to help find lost children or disabled adults who’ve gone missing. They get one lost call every other day, he said.
There are technically 300 residents on the watch rolls. But only about 100 of them are active, Lee said.
By his calculations, the watch needs 1,000 members. That would ensure that enough people would be available at any time of day or night.
He envisions a large neighborhood watch as responding to more than just calls for lost children. He wants them to be first responders in any emergency, from fires to tornados.
“What it boils down to is, as more and more city employees do not live in the city, when there’s a crisis the neighbor’s already there,” he said. “We’re there until the expert steps in. Then we step back.”
He thinks Neighborhood Watch suffers from a lack of involvement because people think it’s a police-like, confrontational activity.
He said watches have been given a bad name by incidents like the George Zimmerman case, in which the Florida neighborhood watch coordinator followed and later shot a teen he considered suspicious.
“It used to be patrolling was equated with confrontation,” he said. “But Neighborhood Watch has never been police officers. Patrolling is, you walk, drive or bike around your neighborhood to learn what’s normal and abnormal.”
He said good watch members notice a stranger sneaking into a house, and call police.
They don’t chase down the stranger themselves.
“Herein lies part of the obstacle: not knowing what Neighborhood Watch is all about,” he said. “We are trained observers.”
Those who want to join should call 505-8912. Before they are accepted as members, they must fill out paperwork for a background check, which Lee said tends to discourage those who aren’t serious about the mission.
He’s hoping to induct many new members this spring.