The phrase “neighborhood watch” has been prominent in the news of late, and not always in a positive way.
In the recent Trayvon Martin slaying trial in Florida, the state’s focus in prosecuting acquitted killer George Zimmerman was to portray the 32-year-old as an overzealous neighborhood watchman out to do his own justice.
“There’s the same relationship between a real neighborhood watch organization and the Zimmerman situation as there is with a neighborhood watch organization and the movie ‘The Watch,’” said M.L. Loudermilk, who founded a neighborhood watch in his Flowery Branch community.
He was referring to a comedy about four neighborhood watchmen who uncover an alien plot threatening earth. Loudermilk’s group is a bit more low-key, serving 500 plus homes in his community.
Saturday morning, Loudermilk couldn’t have been more proud of the group, accepting the “Excellence by a Neighborhood Watch Group” award from the National Sheriffs Association, which recognized it as the nation’s best.
“There’s only one neighborhood in the entire country that receives this award,” Hall County Sheriff Gerald Couch said.
Loudermilk used his management and organizational experience to put the program together.
“I kind of feel like a proud grandparent — I didn’t have any of the responsibility but I can take all the credit,” he said with a grin.
Current organizer Tom Dibble agreed, and concurred that the Zimmerman case hasn’t soured the achievement and the work the group does.
“We haven’t allowed that to affect us, or our residents in any way, with regard to what we do,” Dibble said. “See, we accomplished this not because of just having a committee — we have block captains, we have watchers, they are people that keep their eyes and ears open, and when they see suspicious activity, we contact the Hall County sheriff’s dispatch.”
Couch also stressed that the circumstances of the Zimmerman case don’t represent the standards the sheriff’s office presents to watch programs.
“It’s built into the neighborhood watch program when we do a presentation,” he said. “We talk about how far participants should go, and in identifying areas of crime, make sure that they call us to actually let the police take care of it, and not take action themselves. Their role is more as a witness. If they can safely get information and then report to us, that’s fine; if they can’t do it safety, then they don’t need to do it.”
Residents like Barbra Hasaka were at the ceremony to show their appreciation. The program proved its effectiveness last week, Hasaka said, when watchful neighbors took action for a seemingly suspicious scenario affecting her home.
“A delivery man came to my house to deliver something. I told the manager of the store that we would not be home and he apparently never changed the date in the computer. The delivery men showed up in an unmarked truck and were shining flashlights through the front of my house,” she said.
Vigilant neighbors reported the incident to the block captain, who notified the police promptly.
“I was very grateful,” Hasaka said. “Even though nothing happened, I was happy to see that my neighbors were looking out for me.”
Having an effective neighborhood watch is about more than simply reporting suspicious things as they happen, something Reunion’s group excelled at, Couch said.
“It could be burned out street lights, making sure those are replaced; coordinate all the activities for off-duty officers to do patrols during peak times,” he said. “They have a newsletter that they send out, monthly, that tells about happenings in the neighborhood.”
Sheriff’s Office spokesmen Stephen Wilbanks and Chad Mann coordinate efforts between the office and neighborhood watch programs.
“It’s truly a partnership,” Couch said.
Mann said bettering crime prevention within a neighborhood starts as simple as a “hello.”
“Any kind of community activity, even a block party, where you just bring the neighborhood together, you can start to share ideas. All too often we have communities now who just don’t communicate. We have a neighbor who doesn’t know the next neighbor over,” he said.
Creating those sorts of ties lend themselves both to making a neighborhood safer, and easing worries like finding a dog sitter, he said.
The sheriff’s office advises those interested in starting their own neighborhood watch program to contact the Crime Prevention Division of the Hall County Sheriff’s Office at 770-531-6900.