Evanston neighborhood watch groups keep eyes on the street

Manuel Rapada

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Following a series of burglaries near his family’s 6th Ward home over a span of five years, Evanston resident Patrick Long made a call to the Evanston Police Department. “I just simply called the Evanston police and asked them about what programs they had and how to get involved,” he told the daily. “They transferred me to Officer (Loyce) Spells.” So Long and his wife Patti met with Spells, a staffer with EPD’s community strategies office. Then they met with neighbors in their basement to rehash community safety problems. Finally, Patrick Long founded the Cartwright Park Neighborhood Watch in June 2010. Neighborhood watch groups nationwide have been in the spotlight since the death of Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old boy killed by a neighborhood watch volunteer in Sanford, Fla. in February. But Spells, who said there are about 18 to 20 formal and informal watch groups in Evanston, said Wednesday that he believes neighborhood watch encourages communication among neighbors and reporting of suspicious activity, not vigilantism. “We see them as a proactive, positive measure,” he said. Before the forming of CPNW, which covers three blocks from Payne Street to Grant Street between Crawford and Prospect avenues, neighbors did not necessarily know each other, Patti Long said. Getting to know the neighbors, which Spells called one of the leading principles of neighborhood watch, has had a positive impact on the community, Patti Long said. “We know them on a name-to-name basis,” she said. She added that neighbors inform each other when they go on vacation and collaborate on organizing neighborhood events, including one for Cinco de Mayo this weekend. Although Patrick Long noted some neighborhood watches may actively patrol, the level of criminal activity in his watch area does not warrant that level of attention. Instead, CPNW has adopted the tactic of “neighborhood ownership.” “Don’t just drive around, get in to your garage and run right into your house,” he said of the approach. “Take your dog with you, say hello to your neighbors. Show that you own the area that you are walking in.” Patrick Long said crime has decreased in the area because residents are reporting suspicious people and vehicles to police more frequently. Prior to the forming of CPNW, he said a robbery occurred about once a month in the area or nearby. In CPNW’s first year, he said neighbors were already much more aggressive in terms of reporting issues to the police. “All of that collectively – the signs, awareness, communication and police response – substantially drove down the (crime) activity in the neighborhood,” he said. EPD could not be reached Thursday to verify that crime has gone down in the Longs’ neighborhood. In addition to holding meetings twice a year at nearby Presbyterian Homes Retirement Center, 3200 Grant St., the watch group also emails safety alerts to households. An email sent Thursday provided tips on preventing crime during the warm weather and announced the organization’s intent to keep its eyes on activity at abandoned properties. Spells said EPD usually recommends the formation of watch groups in areas of chronic crime. He added neighborhood watch is not a “blanket response” to crime in the community. “It is a tool that we use that’s no different than a tool in the tool belt for a carpenter,” he said. “It has to be the right tool for the right setting, for the right community, with the right involvement.” Currently, Spells said there are no neighborhood watches in the 1st or 7th Wards. In the 6th Ward, Patti Long emphasized that the CPNW has provided a sense of security in her family’s community. “I think everybody is really happy that we have this,” she said. “We didn’t have it years ago, but there was never really a need. It’s sort of sad that something has to happen for it to come together. But it did and now look at how strong it is.” manuelrapada2015@u.northwestern.edu