Watch group forms over crime concerns

Published 5:00 am Thursday, March 20, 2008

More than 60 residents from the Halbert Heights community metand formed the foundation for a new neighborhood watch programTuesday night, exchanging phone numbers and contact information toestablish the first security network of neighborlyback-watching.

“I think everyone feels better now that we have decided to puttogether a directory for the watch,” said Stacy Ravenscraft, thenew group’s spokeswoman. “Several homeowners in the area arealready interested in serving on the committee.”

Also on hand for the meeting was Brookhaven Police Chief PapHenderson, who fielded questions from the community about crime inthe neighborhood and discussed tips for improving homesecurity.

“We can’t live like we did 15 years ago,” Henderson said. “Wecan’t live like we did even 10 years ago. I know people who saytheir neighborhood is so safe that they never lock their doors whenthey leave. We just can’t live like that anymore – it’simpossible.”

Henderson said crime is not a popular topic of discussion andalso indicated prevention is not a frequently publicizedmatter.

“The newspaper doesn’t come around until Christmas to get tipson how to protect houses,” the chief said. “But this is somethingwe should do every day. We have to make it hard on criminals.”

Henderson identified the typical criminal as usually someonewithout a job, not local, and studious to the art of stealing. Hepointed out that many thieves and burglars are “well-dressed,”posing in an official manner to approach homes without arousingsuspicion.

“We turn people into thieves,” Henderson said. “We go away andleave our doors open, then someone dressed as a repairman comes toour doors and turns our doorknobs. But we’re not there – we’redowntown, or we’re in Jackson.”

Henderson stressed the importance of not letting an empty homeappear obviously empty. He recommended that residents inform aclose neighbor when leaving for extended amounts of time. He alsoadvised that neighbors help each other’s homes maintain thepresence of occupancy by collecting newspapers every day.

“Thieves come from out of town and feast on people,” he said.”They ride up and down the roads and look for empty houses, lookfor stacked-up newspapers.”

The old tradition of leaving the porch light on, however, maynot serve as such a great deterrence.

“To me, in law enforcement, the first thing I think of is thatno one is home,” Henderson said. “Thieves will drive by and notice,’That light has been on for two nights.'”

Henderson also informed the community of BPD’s 24-hour watchprogram and advised that residents leaving town for long periods oftime contact the police and not just neighbors. Referring to lawenforcement was Henderson’s recurring theme throughout thediscussion, a measure to be added to any other actions theneighborhood watch may take.

“The most important thing we need is for you to call that number- the police department,” Henderson said. “You wouldn’t believe howmany people say, ‘Well, we didn’t want to bother you.’ We don’tcare how big it is or how small it is – call us – and we’recoming.”

Henderson said that responding to “small things” was a normalpart of police business, and no one should hesitate to reportsuspicious activity. The department even responds to accidentalcalls, just in case.

“You may realize that you’re the one who set the alarm off, andyou may call us and say it was a mistake – but we’re not gonna turnaround,” Henderson said. “We’re still coming. We’re gonna make surethe situation is safe. I don’t have a problem with my guys goingout on false calls.”

Henderson took special care during the meeting to answerquestions about home defense, as more than one Halbert Heightsresident made it clear that they owned firearms and would nothesitate to fire on an intruder. Henderson affirmed a citizen’sright to do so via the Castle Doctrine, but urged that calling thepolice department should be the first action of anyone dealing witha home intrusion.

“You have that right, but believe me, you don’t want to do it,”Henderson warned. “If there’s any way you can avoid confrontation,do it – and call us. If there’s any way possible, you don’t want tohurt anyone.”

Henderson had good reason to urge restraint on the issue of firearms. He informed the Halbert Heights residents that many of thesuspicious people they have reported as “prowlers” hugging thefences during the night are just youths on the move.

“We know a lot of times these are just young kids taking ashortcut, but as property owners you should call us,” Hendersonsaid. “We don’t try to come to your house and tell you it’s just akid, because in your mind you’ve already decided that is was aprowler. Even when we know it was just kids, we’re coming to younonetheless.”

Henderson, and many members of the community, voiced fears thata teenager could be hurt while moving through the neighborhood lateat night – yet another reason why he urged residents to call thepolice before jumping to conclusions.

“We deal with children a lot, and I always put emphasis on this- judge them as individuals,” Henderson said. “Don’t judge ’em as agroup. They do a lot of mischievous things, but we have to workwith them and pray to God that no one gets hurt.”

In the end, Henderson told the residents that he would work withthem to get the neighborhood watch program up and running. Headmitted that, at first, he was opposed to the idea, as he felt itan affront to the quality of the police department.

“Y’all have a beautiful neighborhood, it’s close, you watch outfor each other,” he told the group. “And people notice that. Wejust haven’t had a lot of crimes in your neighborhood. What couldyou do in a neighborhood watch program that you can’t do now?”

The crime level in Halbert Heights is actually low, however, andHenderson said he supported a watch program that would help to keepit that way.

“I’ve always felt that neighbors should look out for eachother,” he said. “I don’t have a problem helping you get theinformation you need and get you set up. It’s really just lookingout for each other.”