Yesterday’s report on the West Ridge Community Watch Program broadcast by our local NPR station, WBEZ, was inaccurate in several respects, from the color of and legend on the jackets to the extent of concern by residents that Watch participants are somehow spies for the police. To suggest that the Watch program is racist in nature is a gross mischaracterization of the program, its participants, and our local police.
Members of the Community Watch program are neighbors watching out for neighbors. A single resident, Jennifer Viets, was interviewed by Odette Youseff of WBEZ and described Watch participants as “menacing” people in “uniforms” who have been “deputized;” worse, she has told neighbors with nonwhite children that they have reason to be afraid of Watch participants. Nothing could be further from the truth.
The Neighborhood Watch Program was formed as a response to property crimes, especially vehicle theft and thefts from yards, porches, garages, and vehicles. The idea is simple: Neighbors walk a few blocks around their neighborhood, noting unsecured or open doors on homes, garages, apartment buildings, or vehicles, or piles of rat-attracting garbage. Watchers may ring a doorbell to advise a homeowner that the garage has been left open or a bike left outside, or take a quick photo of the garbage and send it to the City via 311. If Watchers see public drinking, drug sales, or suspicious activities, such as someone walking down the street trying to open car doors, they call 911. Sgt. Sisk noted in the WBEZ report that most of the thefts occurred because people were not locking their doors.
Watchers have been specifically instructed by the police not to assume police powers and not to intervene in any situation; their sole role is to notify the City or the police of what, if anything, they note on their walks. They may not use their vehicles or ride bikes but must walk. They may not carry weapons or use police scanners, and must obey the law at all times. Watchers must be older than age 21. They can walk with their dogs (the dogs must be leashed). It’s suggested that two people walk together. Most importantly, Watchers have been told not to misrepresent themselves as police officers. They have no power to detain or arrest anyone.
Viets has complained in the past of her son’s treatment by the police several years ago when he was a young teenager (he is now an adult). I first heard her story last summer when she attended an event hosted by the alderman at which then-new Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson was to meet residents of West Ridge. She said she was planning to confront Johnson with her story; he was unable to attend but Viets repeated her son’s story to the crowd. Youseff was careful in her report to note that the son “has never been convicted” of any crime, and in a follow-up interview said the young man had “no criminal record.” The police, of course, cannot discuss their encounters with either the young man or his mother, which leaves us with half the story. But Viets has assumed such an extreme anti-policing position that her window displays a sign saying “We don’t call police…..”
She also noted that all the Watchers are white, suggesting that the group is racist. But membership is open to all interested residents, and Watchers safeguard the property of non-white residents, too. Neither the police nor the Community Watch can be held accountable if non-white residents choose not to participate. If protecting your home, vehicle, and other property are not enough motivation for you to join the group, so be it. Participation is voluntary. Watchers do not discriminate, and would welcome neighbors of all races and ethnicities. Residents can opt in as well as out.
Youseff did note that the number of car thefts around Indian Boundary has decreased, though it’s not clear if this is a result of the Neighborhood Watch or simply a return to the “normal” level of that crime in the area. I’d bet the Watch has had an impact.
Viets told Youseff that she wants to try to develop a different approach to community-building. She’s working with others to organize “resistance” and suggested that the shootings of Trayvon Martin by a community watch volunteer in Florida and of a black teenager by a Cleveland police officer support her concerns. It’s unfortunate that she cannot move past her anger with the police for what she believes is past injustice. Using that anger to deepen the racial divide does not help build community.
It’s wrong to suggest that our neighborhood watch program is cause for alarm. Good people keeping an eye out for potential trouble are an asset to the neighborhood.