As Property Crimes Increase, More Neighbors Are on Patrol

Patrik Jonsson, Christian Science Monitor, January 27, 2009

It’s not unusual for Jennifer Litkowiec to have problems with her husband’s off-the-wall ideas, but this one took the cake.

Hispanic gangs had seeped into the couple’s quiet corner of the working-class town of Cudahy, Wis., just south of Milwaukee, stealing garage door openers and returning later to score the contents.

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Against his wife’s loud protestations, the young steamfitter joined a dozen other neighborhood men and set up the Rosewood night patrol.

Armed with nothing but flashlights and cellphones, the group followed suspicious cars and even set up an impromptu sting when a neighbor left town and forgot to close his garage door. They called in police to arrest the suspects after a brief chase.

High foreclosure rates, a spike in brazen break-ins, and slashed police budgets are causing turmoil in America’s transitioning urban communities, auguring what Atlanta anticrime activist Larry Ely calls an “urban war.”

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But like other historical flash points, when the public becomes personally involved in crime fighting, vigilantism becomes a threat, experts say, especially if government appears powerless.

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Hard numbers on the rise in amateur crime fighters don’t exist, but policing experts say the trend is noticeable. At the National Sheriffs Association (NSA), which runs some 26,000 Neighborhood Watch groups, activity has risen to nearly the levels of the winter of 2001, following 9/11.

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Rising property crimes a factor

Though violent crimes are down across the nation, property crimes by many accounts are rising. (FBI crime figures for 2008 won’t be available until fall.) Transitional neighborhoods around major urban centers are particularly prone to the cause-and-effect between rising crime and community patrols, as national migration figures slow and more and more Americans hunker down.

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In Plano, Texas, residents created a watch group to look after vacant and abandoned homes. In New Orleans, groups like Silence is Violence are using Twitter alarms and cell phone messages to fight that city’s violent crime wave.

Clayton County, Ga., is one of a growing number of police departments putting arrest and warrant information online in map form to give residents a sense of who has had previous run-ins with the law.

And though Twitter alarms and other tech-savvy warning systems can sometimes ratchet up the perception of crime rates, they’re also being used effectively: An Atlanta break-in captured by home cameras and then put up on YouTube helped police catch several suspects last month.

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The Nation magazine recently reported that after hurricane Katrina, vigilantes killed several black men for simply walking through a neighborhood. Several registered sex offenders have also been killed. Citizen patrols became a controversy in New Haven, Conn., in 2007 when the Edgewood Park Defense Patrol included some armed with licensed firearms.

“If it’s largely white citizen groups trying to protect new turf, you run the risk of creating flash points,” says Stan Stojkovic, dean of the Helen Bader School of Social Welfare at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee. {snip}

The power of “Hey!”

That’s what Lewis Cartee is careful to address with the more gung-ho members of his block patrol group in East Atlanta, known as Safe Atlanta for Everyone (SAFE). He calls the group “a glorified neighborhood watch” where he uses Google maps to chart out “beats” for some 40 residents. He says he stresses what he calls “the power of ‘Hey.'”

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Done inclusively, neighborhood patrols can be a powerful deterrent, says Rufus Terrill, an Atlanta mayoral candidate.

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