By CAITLIN COSTELLO
Capital News Service
LANSING—Smashed pumpkins, theft and vandalized cars were common in Calvin Howard’s Alpena neighborhood until he and other residents took back the streets with a neighborhood watch program.
More porch lights are on and people are looking out for each other, Howard said. “Knowing that they are being watched helps keep criminals away.”
Communities across the state are starting watch programs like Alpena’s. Others, like Traverse City and Lansing, are strengthening existing programs.
Nationwide, neighborhood watch groups helped cut crime by 16 percent, according to a 2008 study by the National Crime Prevention Council, a non-profit educational group in Arlington, Va.
It’s difficult to assess the growth of programs in the state because watch groups are locally organized and aren’t overseen by state agencies, said Thomas Hendrickson, Michigan Association of Chiefs of Police executive director.
However, Alpena Police community services officer Tim Marquardt said watch groups are developing more often in northern Michigan. Alpena has one established program and is starting another one.
Economic woes have curtailed citizen participation, however, and budget problems could cut jobs or responsibilities of police who coordinate such programs, said Marquardt.
“Not a lot of money is required to make these programs work, but it is still difficult to accomplish in this economy,” he added.
Some communities can’t afford the signs and home stickers that identify the neighborhood watch because members must pay dues to buy these things, he said.
Marquardt said his position directing neighborhood groups could be eliminated with budget cuts, too.
In Traverse City, police liaisons help groups patrol their neighborhoods.
But, Steve Morgan, Traverse City Police road captain, said liaisons could be reassigned and used for other patrol routes because of cuts.
When the economy is tight, budgets are tight, said Michael Roy, director of criminal justice programs at Alpena Community College.
That’s when service organizations must depend more on their volunteers, but during tough economic times when the need is greatest, enough volunteers may not be available because people focus on personal issues like jobs, not on community issues, he said.
However, northwest Detroit neighborhood watch member Mary Little said her community has taken on a bigger policing role because budget cuts mean fewer police on patrol.
The group logs suspicious activity in the neighborhood so it can contact police with detailed information, she said.
“We are the eyes and ears in our community when the police aren’t present, and we need to help them in any way that we can,” she said.
Morgan said information provided to police by a Traverse City neighborhood group helped solve a major car theft case.
And Marquardt said training citizens to give officers specific details like license plate numbers is important.
Lansing Police Detective Elizabeth Reust said in an ideal training program, citizens learn how to communicate effectively with neighbors and to recognize and respond to suspicious activities.
Reust formerly worked at the National Sheriff’s Association on neighborhood watch projects.
Watch programs are a “good tool to bring people together for problem solving,” she said.
Training should be tailored to the needs of the community, said Reust.
Reust said she lives in an area where most residents are older so identity theft precautions would be more useful than drug house training, she said, but the opposite could be true in other communities.
Some communities offer additional programs. Certified Emergency Response Training, which teaches citizens how to respond in emergencies, and a citizens’ police academy are two such programs.
Hendrickson, said initiating neighborhood watch groups is the most difficult step for most communities, but concerned citizens can take the first step by contacting their local law enforcement agency.
© 2009, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.