Neighbors wanted to fight crime

After Scottie Wold of Harrisburg and her neighbors discussed a rash of thefts from cars in the area last year, Wold decided to take matters into her own hands

"I had just had enough," she said. "It just burns me up that people are out working like dogs and other people come along and steal from them."

She put up fliers and started an electronic mailing list to alert people to break-ins and other crime-related issues in her neighborhood, Camelot. Now she has more than 100 e-mail addresses from people in at least seven neighborhoods in Harrisburg on her mailing list.

"There needed to be some way to send out the information," she said.

Now Harrisburg officials are considering a communication network that would alert residents to public safety issues in the area through e-mail and text messaging, as well as social media such as Twitter and Facebook.

The town is assembling a public safety committee made up of residents who will work to help improve communication between the Cabarrus County Sheriff's Office and Harrisburg residents and business owners. Applications are available at the Harrisburg Town Hall.

Harrisburg town councilman Steve Sciascia said the network would get the word out about criminal activity, flooding or even car accidents causing traffic delays. The network would also communicate the successes of local law enforcement by reporting arrests made by the Sheriff's Office.

"Once you've been robbed, you try to come up with many ways to prevent it," said Sciascia, who said he had game systems, laptops and jewelry stolen from his home a few years ago. "It's like taking a neighborhood watch and making it a Harrisburg watch."

Mark Burch of Harrisburg approached Sciascia with the idea that the town could use social media to communicate with residents about public safety issues.

Burch said the network - a resource he says will be helpful in times of tight budgets - could target neighborhoods or sections of the town affected by issues such as a string of thefts.

Three years ago, someone kicked in Burch's front door and stole electronics from his home. Burch had no idea that about six homes in the area were robbed that month.

"There was just no effective way of communicating," said Burch.

Wold checks the Sheriff's Office's websites and stays in touch with deputies who work in the area. She sends out e-mails as issues arise, such as reports of suspicious people traveling through neighborhoods. Sometimes she includes safety tips or descriptions of suspects.

She said she hopes a Harrisburg-wide network will make people more aware of their surroundings.

"You just sort of get in your own little cocoon and forget about the people around you," she said. "We're not in a crime-free world."

Crime isn't a huge problem in Harrisburg, said Chief Deputy Paul Hunt of the Cabarrus County Sheriff's Office.

In May, only one business and three homes reported break-ins in Harrisburg.

"But if your house gets broken into, it's a major problem," said Hunt. "It does happen from time to time, and it helps deter crime if people are out there looking."

Sciascia said the town will work with the Sheriff's Office to determine the types of situations that would be communicated over the network. The town will test the communication network with a pilot group of residents this year.

Some Charlotte police officers have been testing social media as a means of communicating with locals about crime in the area. Officers in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department's University City and Eastway divisions have created Twitter accounts to alert people to crime.

CMPD Sgt. Jim Morrison said he created a Twitter account about six months ago. He recently send out a tweet warning people about three men in a light blue Ford Expedition or Explorer who had just broken into a home.

"Call 911 if seen," tweeted Morrison. Morrison had 285 people following his Twitter account as of last week.

"We'll have that many more eyes out in the community," he said.

Cabarrus County uses the Connect-CTY, a mass notification service that sends time-sensitive messages by phone, e-mail and text messages to those registered. Hunt said the sheriff's office has been working with the county to use that system to relay information to residents about matters such as crime or flooding.

Hunt said Harrisburg's plans for a communication network might inspire residents to watch out for their neighbors.

"We can't be everywhere," said Hunt of his fellow officers. "It helps us to have the eyes and ears of the people of the community."