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How the Neighborhood Watch program operates in Riley County

By Katherine Wartell

The fatal shooting of a 17-year-old Sanford, Fla., boy by a Neighborhood watchman has brought national attention to that program. Officials in Riley County said Friday that while a similar program exists here, it is not intended to be dangerous and vigilante action of the type that took place in Florida is discouraged.

Officer Scott Hagemeister, the department’s liaison to the Neighborhood Watch program, said there are 10 Neighborhood Watch programs on the department’s roster, although only about two or three are active.

In the Sanford, Fla., incident, a Neighborhood Watch volunteer named George Zimmerman confronted a teen named Trayvon Martin as Martin returned from a store. Zimmerman followed Martin for a time, and eventually shot Martin, claiming that he did so in self-defense. No charges have been filed, but the incident has sparked protests both in Florida and elsewhere.

Hagemeister said in Manhattan, members are not asked to patrol the streets, but to relate to the police in a timely manner suspicious activity that includes unusual noises such as screaming, property being taken out of unoccupied homes or closed businesses, vehicles moving slowly with no apparent destination or without headlights, a stranger talking to a child or sitting in car, someone looking into parked cars and windows and anyone being forced into a vehicle.

The Watch program is also intended to resolve problems such as dilapidated houses, abandoned cars, littering and drug abuse and sales.

Hagemeister said there can be issues with citizens not reporting the activity in a timely enough manner. “Some people wait 30 minutes or say they saw a guy two weeks ago,” he said. The ideal is for officers to be able to contact the person as the activity is happening, he said.

Hagemeister said the best way to do this is for citizens to not make contact with the reportedly suspicious person, but to let the officers make first contact.

“We don’t want people walking around with guns,” Hagemeister said. “That’s not their responsibility.”

He said the recommended and most helpful way to report activity is to call 911 and to take good notes and be able to give a good description, including the person’s sex, age, race, height, hair color, clothing and distinctive characteristics like scars or a limp. Or, if a car is involved, be able to give a good description of that, including special features like dents or decals. 

He recommends that each Neighborhood Watch be fairly small, about one-to-two blocks, so that members are familiar with those around them and know who should be in their neighborhood.

Interested groups are asked to invite Hagemeister to their first Watch meeting, and after that, it is up to the groups to determine how much contact they have with the RCPD. 

Hagemeister said that two block leaders, whose names are kept on RCPD file, are identified from each Watch group . Their responsibilities are to organize the residents in their assigned area, keep them informed and interested, and to discourage vigilante action.

Their active duties include presiding over the Watch meetings, soliciting new members, coordinating with City departments and community organizations and encouraging residents to take a Home Security Survey provided by the RCPD.

The survey includes questions such as: does a door have a 180-degree peephole; are locks 40 inches from glass; are exterior lights working; and do basement windows have auxiliary locks.

Neighborhood Watch areas are designated by a sign and Hagemeister said those are paid for by the Watch group through the RCPD, which orders them from the state, for about $20.

Hagemeister said concerns from the groups can also help establish where there are design or environmental issues, such as where lighting or traffic control equipment is needed.

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