Neighborhoods watching out for each other

URBANA — Nancy Barrett was shocked.

A year and a half ago, just down the street from her southeast Urbana home, a man brandishing a knife forced his way inside of the home of a 79-year-old woman, robbed and sexually abused her and trapped her in a closet with her hands tied behind her back for four days in January 2011.

Inspired to do something to help protect her neighborhood, Barrett called the Urbana Police Department, contacted her neighbors and started a neighborhood watch.

"After that terrible tragedy, we decided we needed to bring our neighborhood together to learn safety tips," Barrett said.

Barrett said she put a flier in everybody's mailbox and invited them to an organizational meeting at the Urbana Civic Center in July 2011.

Now, the AMVETS II Neighborhood Watch bounded by Florida Avenue, Philo Road, Fairlawn Drive and James Cherry Drive is the largest such organization in Urbana, with 65 people looking out for one another, according to Urbana Police Lt. Robert Fitzgerald, who coordinates neighborhood watches in that city.

Barrett's husband, Jerry, said AMVETS II was the name for the area, where homes were built to house veterans coming home after World War II.

"We are aware of our neighborhood and our neighbors, and we remind one another to close the garage doors," Nancy Barrett said.

Neighborhood watches are enjoying a bit of a growth spurt in Champaign-Urbana.

Fitzgerald said the number of neighborhood watches in Urbana has increased from six about a year ago to 21.

"A neighborhood watch is a community that comes together to settle problems in a neighborhood," Fitzgerald said. "It covers everything from addressing crime to public service, including things like potholes and vacant houses."

John Ruffin, Champaign's neighborhood coordinator, said neighborhood watches in his city have jumped from 35 a little over a year ago to 44.

"It is a program where neighborhoods come together and get organized around addressing ongoing crime and issues of public safety in the community," Ruffin said. "The whole neighborhood watch initiative and effort is about being proactive and getting ahead of crime as opposed to reacting to crime."

In Urbana, one specific police officer is assigned to each neighborhood watch, Fitzgerald said.

"The neighborhood watch people have somebody they can call or email to discuss what problems they have and how the officer can help them," Fitzgerald said. "It's a problem-solving thing."

While Fitzgerald doesn't have any statistics on the effects of neighborhood watches on crime, he said, information provided by watch participants are often used to solve crimes, including noting homes where criminal activity may be going on.

He said that, over time, areas of Urbana with neighborhood watches tend to have fewer calls for service from police.

Ruffin said the city of Champaign is divided into four quadrants for police protection. The police lieutenants from each quadrant work with the neighborhood watches in their areas, including providing them with crime data and crime reports.

"They report suspicious persons and activities in their communities to the Champaign Police Department," Ruffin said. "They protect their homes by installing dead-bolt locks and other auxiliary locking devices. They make sure the lights are on at night."

Both Fitzgerald and Ruffin agree that Champaign-Urbana neighborhood watch organizations are very different from those in Sanford, Fla., where 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was killed in February by neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman, who told investigators he killed Martin in self-defense.

Fitzgerald, who has fielded questions from local watch groups following the shooting in Florida, said watch volunteers here in Illinois don't carry guns, don't patrol neighborhoods and don't confront people.

"We do not ask our citizens to walk around the streets with guns," Fitzgerald said. "They are a lookout for the police; they are not there to be vigilantes."

Not only does Illinois not have a concealed-carry law, but it also doesn't have Florida's "stand your ground" law, which allows a person to use deadly force against another if "he or she reasonably believes it is necessary to do so to prevent death or great bodily harm to himself or herself or another or to prevent the commission of a forcible felony."

"I want people to understand, especially in light of the shooting in Florida, that neighborhood watches are not vigilante groups," Nancy Barrett said.

"We are neighbors who organize to increase safety and look for ways to improve our communities."

Barrett said the AMVETS II members don't patrol the neighborhood, but they have a good relationship with the police and provide information to the police who patrol their streets.

The AMVETS II organization is led by seven captains who work with the people on their blocks to spread information about criminal incidents by email or phone trees.

When neighborhood families head out of town for vacation, Barrett said, they notify police to check the home on a regular basis. Neighbors then help to pick up the mail and the newspaper and take out the trash so potential burglars don't know a home is unoccupied, Barrett said.

Barrett said her group hosts garage sales in the spring and block parties in September and goes caroling together in December.

While the use of force is not a part of Champaign-Urbana neighborhood watches, Ruffin said, members of the local organizations do a good job of looking out for one another.

"I've been encouraging folks since the Trayvon Martin murder that neighborhood watch members need to use their eyes and contact police about suspicious activity," Ruffin said.

Meghan Firchau of Champaign started the Greenmeadows Southwood Neighborhood Watch last year after she and other parents became concerned over reports of attempted abductions of children in the area. Today the watch includes 55 households.

Firchau said her organization recently helped a lost dog to return to his family.

"My husband and I found a miniature Pinscher late one night, and my husband caught it," Firchau said. "I sent an email to our neighborhood watch about the dog, and pretty soon I got a telephone call from a lady. It turned out her gate had been open and one of her dogs had run away. We were able to return the dog to its home."

Nancy Barrett said the members of the AMVETS II Neighborhood Watch recently took up a collection and presented a gift to the postman who first discovered the woman had been trapped in the closet when he noticed she didn't pick up her mail.

"Not only do you get together with your neighbors, but you will learn some safety tips along the way," Barrett said.

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