Police seek vigilance, not vigilantes, in neighborhood watch

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Nico Savidge
Saturday, August 10, 2013

JANESVILLE—After a rash of break-ins around their north-side subdivision this summer, Mandy Tukiendorf and her neighbors started talking on their community Facebook group.

Looking for more help from Janesville Police, they decided to start a neighborhood watch organization for the subdivision, joining more than 150 other groups around the city.

On July 31, Tukiendorf and about 60 residents of her subdivision met with Officer Chad Sullivan, the department's neighborhood watch coordinator, who told them how important it is for police to have vigilant people on the lookout for crime in their neighborhoods.

“As citizens, we are kind of the eyes and ears for police when they're not there,” Tukiendorf said.

He also told the crowd about being “good witnesses” for police—giving accurate descriptions of people they think are suspicious, for instance.

A year and a half after neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman shot unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin to death in a Florida gated community, Sullivan said what police don't want is someone trying to take the law into their own hands.

“We want a good witness—we don't want a person enforcing the law for us,” Sullivan said. “They're not trained for that.”

If someone sees something suspicious, Sullivan said, he or she should call police and make sure to note descriptive details: If it's a strange car, what is its license plate number? If it's an unfamiliar person, what kind of hairstyle do they have? Do they have any tattoos or facial hair?

He tells people police don't want a citizen trying to go above and beyond to stop crime, and to “never, ever, ever, ever” confront someone.

“That's not a good way to handle neighborhood watch in my opinion,” he said.

When done right, though, the program can be a valuable asset for cops who often find themselves stretched thin, bouncing from neighborhood to neighborhood, Sullivan said.

Ideally, officers could spend all the time they needed on community-oriented policing, he said, learning what's normal—and what isn't—on every block in the city.

In reality, though, policing is “call-oriented,” Sullivan said, which makes neighborhood watch groups all the more valuable to officers.

It can also help the neighborhood itself.

Like Tukiendorf, Mary Borgia started a neighborhood watch group in her subdivision after a series of break-ins a few years ago.

She also has an active neighborhood Facebook page, which Sullivan said has helped residents share information and stay informed.

Now Borgia and her neighbors meet once a year with Sullivan, chatting over pizza and sodas about what they're noticing and how they can respond to crime.

The group members get to know each other as well, finding out who can babysit or who can help mow a neighbor's lawn if someone gets sick.

Neighborhood watch has helped bring the subdivision together, Borgia said.

“We all help each other,” she said. “That's the way it should be, not just watching your house but watching over you and helping you too.”

Last updated: 6:48 pm Saturday, August 10, 2013

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