Thursday October 25, 2018
When Dennis Ward was hired as the sergeant of the Crime Prevention/Youth Services Unit of the South Burlington Police Department last April, he met with former police chief Trevor Whipple to discuss his duties. Whipple suggested Ward focus on the resurrection of a crime prevention program.
With that goal in mind, Ward set about revitalizing the Chamberlin Neighborhood Watch, which had once been a vibrant network of neighbors working together to maintain a high quality of life on their streets.
“I think it’s a grand idea that they’re going to activate it,” said Anna Johnston, who along with Corona Sheppard, had been a co-captain of the Mills Avenue Watch. “I think people are getting more disconnected, and there’s a need for it.”
Sgt. Ward’s role is to establish a rapport with the community so that information can flow freely between the police and the citizens. However, he has also enlisted the help of Public Works Director and Chief of Public Safety Justin Rabidoux and Director of Planning and Zoning Paul Conner to assist with concerns that fall outside the police department’s purview. Most important is the dynamic between neighbors, those who organize to host block parties, hold regular meetings, distribute important news, and generally strengthen the bond with the people next door.
Ward is still early in his mission. He has been gauging and stoking community interest since September, he said, putting out a front porch forum and holding a number of informational meetings with Chamberlain residents, Conner and Rabidoux, he said.
Indeed, some watches are shifting their leadership in preparation for the program’s relaunch. On Mills Avenue, Johnston and Sheppard have stepped down from their roles as co-captains, while Loretta Marriot has accepted the position.
“I’m passing the baton to Loretta,” Johnston said.
Though Marriot is not planning any major changes to how the watch functions, she intends to update the contact list and reach out to new neighbors who may not have been around during the previous installment of the program, she said in an email. She’s said she’s hoping that once word of the program spreads, people will offer suggestions and ideas.
This role of captain — sometimes referred to as a “block captain” — is central to the success of a neighborhood watch. The captain is expected to welcome new residents, keep an updated contact list, and generally foster close relationships up and down the block, Ward said. But they are also a point person for the police, and are instrumental in spreading safety concerns throughout the neighborhood, Johnston said.
If an emergency were to occur on Mills Avenue while the watch was active, somebody would call Sheppard, who would call the police and one of the five or so “call captains” on her side of the street, who would then further distribute the information. She would also call Johnston, who would replicate this process but on her side of the street.
During such emergencies, Johnston and Sheppard would also pass along advice.
“Like turning on the lights at night,” Johnston said. “To let them know that we’re aware of what’s going on,” before the police would come and check up on the street.
Such engagement between neighbors nurtures a sense of safety and security, which is why Mills avenue residents were initially prompted to form their watch after a string of break-ins in the early 1990s, Johnston said.
Though Sgt. Ward was already set on the goal of restarting the program, he was further encouraged when he began hearing complaints from Chamberlin residents about various criminal activities taking place throughout the neighborhood, he said.
Ward sees the channels of communication opened by the neighborhood watch as a tool to prevent such disturbances and other crimes in the future.
“We’re trying to figure out the best way to reach out to our residents and let them know what’s going on,” he said.
Beyond this added security, the neighborhood watch is important simply as a means of drawing a neighborhood closer together.
Before Sgt. Ward joined the force last April, the neighborhood watch was headed by Thomas Fraga, who left the force in 2011. Without the advisory of someone from the police department, the program largely faltered with the various blocks halting or scaling back their watch activities, Ward said.
After Fraga’s departure, Carolyn “Collie” Chambers, who has been the captain of the Patrick Street watch for over 20 years, maintained the street’s watch despite falling out of contact with the police department, and not for the added security, she said.
“We kept it up for fun,” she said. “We call it neighborhood watch, but really it’s just the neighborhood.”
Chambers’ watch has never had to send out an alert, and they instead engage the community in more festive ways, namely through their annual yard sale, and their marquee event, the yearly block party.
Chambers and her neighbors set up lawn chairs and food at the end of the street, and though it is technically a “block” party, they invite friends and family from other streets, as well as the police and fire departments.
“Bring some food and you’re welcome,” she said.
While the Patrick Street watch is focused more on mingling between neighbors than passing along information to keep each another safe, simply being friendly adds a certain amount of protection, she said.
“The whole idea is to know your neighbors,” Chambers said. “You’re more likely to know whether there’s something wrong going on.”
SOURCE: Joey Waldinger, Contributor