Communities join Neighborhood Watch program
A few years ago, an alarming amount of property crime began to ravage Kimberlyn Silverman's block.
Silverman and her Southwest Hills Residential League neighbors noticed pedestrians peaking into cars, trespassing onto private property and even shaking the stilts connected to Silverman's home.
Once, in the middle of the night, Silverman heard a strange sound coming from inside her house. Worried, she yelled for her husband. Upon investigation, they saw that their door had been left wide open. An intruder had entered their house and escaped.
"It was scary because we had cars parked in the driveway. Clearly people lived in this place," Silverman said.
This was the last straw. For Silverman, it was time to take measures to keep her home and family safe. And one of those measures was certfiying her block as an official Neighborhood Watch group.
In a city that has seen an increase in property crime in recent years, Neighborhood Watch groups have become a more prevalent measure to deter criminals. Just last year, City Crime Prevention Coordinator Mark Wells set up 65 such organizations.
To earn Neighborhood Watch certification, a group of neighbors must undergo a training session administered by Wells and hold an annual meeting. Each Neighborhood Watch has a designated captain. Silverman is her block's captain.
"Neighborhood Watch is not going to solve all of our crime problems, but if you do a lot of little things we advocate, you will be able to report crime quicker and criminals aren't going to be as successful," Wells said.
After the break-in, Silverman bought a home surveillance system, and she says she noticed a surprising amount of people walking around at night. She also adopted a dog to deter intruders.
Then, she helped formalize the Neighborhood Watch. Her block had already had an informal watch group for years, but Silverman helped the group become certified with the City of Portland.
During the certification training, Wells teaches groups about the different agencies involved with crime prevention, how to be a good witness, how to report a crime and use the City's crime-reporting website (portlandoregon.gov/police/cor), how to be prepared for emergencies and how to organize effectively — all within about two hours.
Following the training, Silverman's watch group has implemented simple measures to better protect themselves from crime.
For instance, they email each other when they see suspicious activity near each other's property, engage suspicious pedestrians lurking late at night with friendly dialogue and call the police or use the City's website to docu-ment crimes when they witness criminal activity.
"I think the big thing is that people want to be respectful of police officers' time, and a lot of the time we second-guess ourselves. 'Should I call this in? Should I not call this in?' The training we get through Neighborhood Watch says if it's suspicious activity and meets the criteria, call it in. So much crime goes unreported, and I think a lot of us are guilty of that. I certainly have been in the past," Silverman said.
Wells and Silverman say approaching suspicious pedestrians helps considerably.
"I think it's because we're engaging with people that are peeking in car windows. We're saying, 'Hi, how are you?' We're not saying to them, 'What are you doing looking in my car?' We're not being
confrontational," Silverman said.
Wells added: "Criminals are looking for dark, quiet areas where no one is reporting anything."
The group also acquired Neighborhood Watch signs to further deter criminal activity, which Silverman says has also helped. But Wells says merely putting up signs isn't
"If they put up two signs and don't do anything else, in my opinion, they're wasting their money," he said.
Wells' philosophy is that forming Neighborhood Watch groups is supposed to be fun rather than laborious and that neighborhood congeniality and friendship lead to crime deterrence. He encourages groups to turn annual meetings into block parties.
"Most Neighborhood Watch's are crime-induced, but we're seeing Neighborhood Watch's just because folks generally want to get to know their neighbors. Forget about crime. Forget about earthquakes. The reason you should start a Neighborhood Watch is to get to know your neighbors better," he said. "If you have a connected neighborhood, the byproduct is crime prevention."
Silverman agrees and says she has enjoyed socializing with her neighbors.
"When you have an urban environment, we don't have yards to mow and we don't see people and talk to them as much. That's been really good to be able to put faces to names and get to know each other," she said.
Wells says property crime is trending up and violent crime is trending down throughout Portland. Also, problems associated with homelessness have causes consternation, and Wells recently certified a Neighborhood Watch near Gander Ridge — which has had issues with a nearby homeless camp.
In regard to homelessness, Wells says concerned citizens must recognize the difference between legal and illegal activity. Living outside and wearing unkempt attire are not crimes, he said.
"We talk about how to be a good witness and reporting suspicious or criminal activity, but not how to judge how they look or their lifestyle," he said. "If a disheveled guy is walking down the street with pur-
pose, that's none of your business."
You never want to criminalize being homeless, Wells said, but a lot of times criminal activity is associated with homelessness. It's probably the No. 1 public safety and livability issue citywide, he said.
To Wells and Silverman, Neighborhood Watch is an extension of the City's crime prevention programs.
"This is not vigilantism. It's really being reactive, reporting crime and doing what you can in the best way you can to not make yourself a target," Silverman said.