URBANA — Earlier this month, 22 members of the Deerfield Trails Homeowners Association on Urbana's south side got together at the St. Matthew Lutheran Church to start up the city's newest neighborhood watch.
Urbana Officer Preston James provided an hour-long training session for the residents.
"The citizens become better informed about how to protect themselves and each other and how to contact us," James said. "We talk about what the neighborhood watch will do for the citizens and how neighbors help one another."
Residents got to meet Officer Byron Ebbert, who patrols their neighborhood, and James offered them tips on how to keep their homes safe and how to burglar-proof their homes, and provided advice on installing good lighting. The group requested neighborhood watch signs be erected at various locations in the area.
James urged the residents not to leave items in cars parked in the driveway, not to keep garage-door openers in plain sight and to keep their cars locked at all times.
"We're building an email list in case we need to notify people of anything happening in a hurry," said neighborhood association board member Doug Wolfersberger. "Part of the neighborhood watch theory is for people to watch out for each other. If I see something unusual, I'm calling the police department to ask them to check it out, and they will be happy to do it for us."
"We've had a few minor incidents, and it's a good idea to keep an eye on everybody around," said neighborhood watch member Nancy Whalen-Strouss.
James urged residents to call 911 and to closely observe people involved with suspicious activity, including jotting down the sex, race, age, height, weight, hairstyle, physical build and clothing.
"You guys are our eyes and ears," James told the watch members.
James said residents don't have to wait for a crime to take place if they see suspicious activity. "Every one of our officers would rather prevent the crime rather than try to clean up from the crime," he said.
Most of all, James urged the residents not to try to stop criminal activity.
"We don't want you to be a vigilante. We don't want you to get hurt, and we don't want you to put anybody else in harm's way," James said. "We get paid for that. Let us come."
John Ruffin, Champaign's neighborhood coordinator, said the city also provides an orientation program for new neighborhood watches, and it encourages members to take part in the Citizens Police Academy to learn about crime prevention and community-based policing.
Starting a neighborhood watch group
If your neighborhood doesn't yet have a watch organization, here's whom you can call to get one started:
- Champaign: Neighborhood Coordinator John Ruffin at 403-7070.
- Danville: Randy Osgood of the Danville Police Department at 431-2866.
- Mahomet: Police Chief Mike Metzler at 586-5533.
- Paxton: Police Chief Bob Bane at 379-4315.
- Rantoul: Police Chief Paul Farber at 892-2103.
- Urbana: Police Lt. Robert Fitzgerald or Officer Preston James at 384-2320.