Neighborhood Watch groups remain an important option in San Luis Obispo County for residents who want to serve as authorities’ extra eyes and ears.
“I like the security of knowing my neighbors are really alert,” said Monica Becker of the Garden Farms group just north of Santa Margarita.
Never afraid to ask questions of strangers, Becker said she will report a suspicious car that’s been trolling the neighborhood or ask new people where they live.
Her informal group of about 100 households has been going for nearly 20 years.
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There are about 35 Neighborhood Watch groups in the unincorporated areas of the county, according to the Sheriff's Department, and more are organized by the cities.
About 10 additional groups watch the unincorporated ranch and farmland areas.
Homeowners new to Neighborhood Watch say they never really knew what it was about.
“We know what the Neighborhood Watch guy looks like. We’ve seen the stickers,” said Kym Riner of San Miguel, but she never knew the logistics.
It’s about being proactive, listening to your instincts and remaining united, said Marsha Mann, crime prevention specialist with the Sheriff’s Department.
Mann gives talks so people are encouraged to report what they see and hear and not be shy about it.
“When you get that gut instinct that something is not quite right, then call,” Mann said.
“And if everything is OK, then everything is OK. But if (it’s not), then you may have prevented a crime or someone getting hurt.”
Getting to know you
While not all hold formal meetings, coordinators countywide say Watch groups help familiarize families with the people and properties around them.
“You may know your closest neighbor but not the neighbors down the street,” said Paula Betker, who coordinates a Watch group on the Arroyo Grande mesa.
She uses Watch to compile her neighbors’ information — such as car types, pets’ names and when people are working — so everyone knows when something doesn’t seem right.
Examples such as hers are found throughout the county.
When Leslie Sands noticed a strange vehicle parked on the road next to her family’s Los Osos home, they phoned the Sheriff’s Department. It turned out to be stolen, she said.
Cori Drew of Nipomo was instrumental in an arrest about two years ago, Mann said, by writing down a license plate number of a suspicious vehicle near her home.
Authorities have resources to help citizens, such as tools at www.slosheriff.org.
Anytime there’s something suspicious — such as door-to-door solicitors asking to come inside — everyone, including the Sheriff’s deputies, will know about it through Becker’s Neighbor Watch e-tree messaging tool.
“It is crucial for community members to train themselves to be alert and aware of their surroundings so that they recognize things (and) people that don’t belong, are unusual or out of place,” Sands said.
Neighborhood Watch also encourages friendliness among neighbors, Becker said, letting everyone know when someone might need dinner after a surgery or a house visit when a neighbor is on vacation.
Spree spurs response
After Riner’s locked van was broken into from the driveway of her San Miguel home, she hurried her efforts to jumpstart a Neighborhood Watch group through the Sheriff’s Department.
Neighbors had experienced similar thefts from their cars and wanted to combat the issue, she said.
In fact, authorities held a community forum there earlier this month to address the concerns.
The town has had 36 reports of stolen laptops, wallets and other items left in cars that were either unlocked or forced into since mid-May, according to the Sheriff’s Department.
While data from the same period in 2009 wasn’t available Friday, authorities say there’s been a noticeable spike.
Several arrests have been made, according to the Sheriff's Department, but the problem continues countywide. Authorities attribute the thefts to crimes of opportunity in summertime, when people tend to leave windows cracked, and also to the recession as people seek quick cash.
Riner met with about 15 households on her neighborhood cul-de-sac about two weeks ago for their first Watch meeting.
“We know the desire (for crime) won’t go away,” she said, “but if we make it difficult, they might move on. If they know people are out here watching.”
What is suspicious activity?
• Someone running from a car or home.
• Someone screaming.
• Someone going door to door in the neighborhood or looking into windows and/or parked cars.
• A person or people with seemingly no purpose wandering through your neighborhood.
• Breaking glass or the sound of a door being kicked.
• Vehicles moving slowly at night without lights.
• Someone removing property from a closed business or unoccupied home.
• A stranger in a car who stops to talk with a child.
• Offers of merchandise available for a price that does not match the value of the item.
• Hand-to-hand transactions from cars or on the street.
How to report suspicious activity or crimes in progress
• For crimes in progress, call 911. For suspicious activity, call your local authority’s nonemergency line.
• Briefly describe the event and answer questions about what, where, when and how it happened and any suspects or vehicles.
• Take note of a suspicious person or suspect’s gender, race, height, weight, hair color/length, clothing, accent, facial hair or other distinguishing characteristics.
• If a vehicle is involved, note its color, make, model, year and license plate number. Look to see if there are any decals or dents. Look what direction it took from the scene.
• Give your name and phone number.
— San Luis Obispo County Sheriff’s Department
E-mail PreventCrime@co.slo.ca.us to sign up for the Sheriff’s Department’s quarterly crime prevention newsletter for safety tips. The department will also do a guided walk-through of homes in its jurisdiction to point out safety weak spots with suggestions on how people can better protect their properties.