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Foss: Schenectady Neighborhood Watch works to keep public safe

Foss: Schenectady Neighborhood Watch works to keep public safe

Foss: Schenectady Neighborhood Watch works to keep public safe
Frederic Lee

Schenectady Neighborhood Watch is 350 members strong. 

That's a pretty good size, but the group's longtime president, Frederic Lee, thinks bigger. 

"I want to see 1,000 signed up members," he said, during a training session last week for neighborhood watch members. 

The event drew 11 people, a mix of newcomers and more experienced members, some of whom were clad in crisp blue neighborhood watch T-shirts. They were all there to learn more about how to better protect their neighborhoods from crime and other undesirable behavior -- from vehicle break-ins and drug activity to dangerous dogs and domestic violence. 

Underpinning Lee's passion for his work is a core belief: That public safety is a human right. 

"We're not spies," Lee said. "We're neighbors. ... We're walking and observing. We're saying, 'This is what I see and it's credible information because I've received basic training.'" 

I became interested in learning more about Schenectady Neighborhood Watch, and the man who leads it, over the summer, when the anti-crime organization the Guardian Angels expressed interest in setting up a chapter in Schenectady. 

The Guardian Angels are good at getting attention, but I'm skeptical that they actually get results and I decided I'd rather write about local groups that are already working hard to reduce crime and violence in the Capital Region. 

One of those groups, which I wrote about in July, is 1Life2Live, which aims to stop gun violence by steering those most likely to perpetuate it away from those streets. 

Another is Schenectady Neighborhood Watch, which takes a very different approach to reducing crime and violence. 

The all-volunteer organization trains law-abiding residents to carefully observe their surroundings and report suspicious activity to law enforcement. Confronting people engaged in criminal activity is a no-no. 

"Maybe there's a need for private security in your neighborhood that goes around with guns and knives," Lee said. "But that's not neighborhood watch. That's not what we do." 

Lee now resides in Saratoga County, but he lived in Schenectady's Hamilton Hill neighborhood for 17 years and was active in a number of community groups during this time. 

It was while serving as head of an organization called Schenectady United Neighborhoods that the Schenectady Police Department approached him and asked whether he might be interested in revitalizing the city's neighborhood watch group. 

He wasn't - "I really had a negative opinion about neighborhood watch," Lee told me -- but he agreed to give it a try. 

One early lesson was that residents expect a lot from police -- much more, he told me, than a busy urban department can reasonably be expected to do. Rather than demand more from the police, Lee decided it made sense to get residents to step up and play a role in keeping the city safe, using their eyes and ears. 

Like Lee, I knew very little about neighborhood watch, to the point where the basic concept struck me as anachronistic -- something that made sense decades ago, perhaps, but had little to offer in 2018. 

Talking to Lee convinced me that a well-run neighborhood watch program has value. 

In particular, I liked what he had to say about empowering neighbors to look out for each other, and the need to recognize that government agencies can't fix every problem plaguing a community.  

It's a compelling vision, and it impressed Tricia Barkman, a Schenectady resident inspired to join Schenectady Neighborhood Watch after her daughter's car was broken into. 

Nothing was stolen, but surveillance footage from a neighbor showed a young man opening the vehicle door and sitting in the car for several minutes. And he didn't stop there -- the footage showed him trying to open car doors up and down the street. Rattled by the young man's brazenness, Barkman decided she needed to do something. 

"I care about our community," Barkman said. "I don't want to be part of the problem, one of those griping people. I want to be part of the solution." 

Lee is "passionate about (neighborhood watch), and that breeds passion," Barkman said. 

The training Barkman and I attended was at St. Paul's Church in Schenectady's Bellevue neighborhood, and drew residents from the city of Schenectady, Rotterdam and Niskayuna. 

Lee told me that interest in establishing neighborhood watch is surging, despite a nationwide drop in crime, and that he's been invited to help establish neighborhood watch groups in Niskayuna, Clifton Park, Schuylerville and Corinth, among other places. 

"When I get to these places, the problems they're having sound a lot like the problems we're having in Schenectady," Lee said. He attributed this upswing in undesirable behavior in communities that once seemed immune to it to the opioid epidemic.  

Lee is an entertaining raconteur, with a warm and humorous speaking style. He can deftly transition from a funny anecdote about meeting Neil Armstrong to a more sobering observation from living in close proximity to drug houses on Hamilton Hill. 

One section of Lee's training focuses on how to identify a drug house -- something he's well versed in. 

"Most homes have a rhythm to it," Lee tells his trainees. 

A drug house, on the other hand, does not. 

People come and go at all hours of day or night, and it can be difficult to ascertain who actually lives there. Litter and loud music are chronic problems, and slurs and epithets "are hurled in your direction, seemingly unprovoked." 

The trainees listen, taking everything in. 

"If you see something, say something," Lee says. "The question is: What is something?" 

By the end of the night, we all have a better sense of how to answer that question. 

Reach Sara Foss at [email protected]. Opinions expressed here are her own and not necessarily the newspaper's.   


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