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A neighborhood watch on wheels
Driver Anthony Towe compacts garbage during a pick up Tuesday at a house on Tower Heights Road in Gainesville. The Gainesville Police Department’s Operation: A.L.E.R.T. is a new initiative aimed at training garbage workers, utility workers and others to spot burglars while making their daily residential rounds. - photo by SARA GUEVARA
Gainesville police are enlisting a new ally in their efforts to combat rising burglary rates.

City workers who pick up garbage at more than 6,000 Gainesville homes twice a week are now keeping an eye out for anything that looks out of the ordinary. And many of them know the outside of the homes on their rounds almost as well as the owners.

“They cover every address in Gainesville and they know what to expect at each and every address,” said David Dockery, the city’s public works director.

“It’s an extra set of eyes and ears for us out in the community,” said Gainesville Police Crime Prevention Officer Joe Britte, who got the program “Operation: Alert” started earlier this month with a training session for 60-plus solid waste and public utility workers.

The program is an extension of the police department’s neighborhood watch program, which has paid dividends in recent months with some quick burglary arrests, Police Chief Frank Hooper said. Gainesville and Hall County are both dealing with increases in burglaries in a down economy.

“Our neighborhood watch programs are doing a lot better, and now we’re taking the next step and taking it out to the folks who are in the neighborhoods every day,” Hooper said. “The main thing is to train them on what to watch out for, and if they see something suspicious, to call us.”

That includes doors ajar, windows broken or garage doors left open, Britte said. It also applies to crimes in plain sight, like fights or vandalism.

“By no stretch do we want them to be vigilantes, but we want them to look out for that stuff and not hesitate to call (911) dispatch,” Britte said.

Gainesville’s garbage workers may have already given their first case to police. A suspicious pile of used gift cards was turned over to investigators who are looking into whether a fraud was committed, Britte said.

Dockery said he thinks “Operation: Alert” is a good idea that doesn’t put much additional burden on city workers.

“I think they are an appropriate group to use to provide that extra level of support (to police) out in the field,” Dockery said. “It should help them identify problem areas. They’re on the streets and in the front yards and the back yards, wherever garbage is collected.”

Britte said police hope to expand the program to involve private delivery companies like FedEx and UPS, as well as the U.S. Postal Service.

With the holidays approaching, “folks are out looking for things to get into,” Britte said. Any additional help keeping watch over residential areas is welcome, he said.

“I call it a neighborhood watch on wheels,” Britte said.
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