You could be gone in 60 seconds

I should feel safer.

But I don't.

Now I'm really scared.

Soon, a group of citizens will patrol the business district attached to the neighborhood where I live. They will be on the lookout for lawbreakers lurking in alleys, doorways and dark corners.

They will carry flashlights and notebooks and be the eyes and ears for police in an area of Charlotte where crime has flared like a fresh match.

Some of them will even carry guns.

Wait! Did you say guns? Some of them will carry guns?

Welcome to wild, wild Charlotte. Any day now, the first armed citizen patrol will hit the streets in Plaza Midwood. It's a small group (five or six members) but that's enough to make a difference.

But yikes! What kind of difference will it make?

Who needs statistics?

If you're lucky, you're not part of these numbers.

Violent crime in Charlotte lept 15.3 percent in the first three months of 2008; property crime grew 11.9 percent over the same period in 2007.

Say this with me, please, with conviction: Crime statistics provide no more than a snapshot, showing one point in time. They do not provide a precise picture of community safety.

Not convinced? Me either. Neither are a lot of other Charlotteans. Their eyes and ears tell them the places they live, work and shop are riskier these days.

Ask Scott Yamanashi. In April, a robber shot him during his birthday party at a Plaza Midwood bar. Now he's organized Neighborhood Watch Alliance with some of his friends from the Central Avenue business district.

The group plans to get T-shirts and radios and walk through the district at night. That's pretty bold, considering some of the types skanking around those streets.

Not to worry, though. Some of the patrollers intend to carry handguns.

“We're not trying to take the place of police,”Yamanashi told an Observer reporter. “I just don't feel the urgency by the city or police.”

I can relate. So can a lot of other Charlotteans who have dialed 911 only to watch suspects vanish.

But citizens with guns? On patrol? Where I live?

Now I'm really scared.

Robbers took my car

Don't think I don't know what Yamanashi is talking about.

One night in March, my doorbell rang. A young man selling Kit-Kat bars from a cardboard box did his best to step over our threshold.

He had friends across the street, and more friends hanging around our parked cars.

We called the cops. Meanwhile, my husband kept the group in sight, as police instruct, as they checked car doors and their contents and rang doorbells down our street and the next.

A few nights later, my car went missing.

There are more subtle signs in my neighborhood, too.

I've stopped buying gas at my usual spot on Central. I just don't feel safe standing at the pump confronted by an angry panhandler whose eyes and limbs involuntarily twitch and who won't back off.

But I'm equally unnerved by the prospect of armed citizens patrolling streets.

Cops get a pass

First things first: It takes the heat off police and the heat should stay on. Citizens shouldn't have to strap on weapons and walk the streets to feel as though their neighborhood is secure.

The other reason: It's dangerous. I don't want to live in the wild, wild West any more than I want to live in a place where I am accosted by unpredictable junkies.

Guns change everything. They make it far too easy for citizen patrols to become vigilantes and take the law into their own hands. In that kind of environment, your car may be safe on the street. But you'll be gone in 60 seconds.

Rodney Monroe, Charlotte's new police chief, ought to publicly (and nicely) ask these citizens – and others who may be emboldened by their passion – not to pack heat.

Then he ought to assign more officers to patrols so citizens don't feel it's up to them to take action because the police don't.