City News

Policing outside the box

When Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police began pursuing a suspect in a vehicle through Plaza Midwood in the early afternoon of Aug. 22, the calls and e-mails quickly circulated.

“Police are chasing a new white truck thru (sic) the neighborhood, per neighbor reports,” Rob Willis wrote in an e-mail to several residents and posted to the Plaza Midwood neighborhood watch message board. “Please be careful!”

With crime statistics up this year – property crime is up 3.8 percent from this time last year and violent crime is up 2.3 percent – many neighborhoods have started taking a proactive approach to helping slow crime. And it's not just the basic, long-standing neighborhood watch programs.

A few in recent years have started message boards, where residents inform each other of crimes or odd happenings around their home. Many have started phone or text-message trees. Others have hired off-duty police, and at least one neighborhood has posted photos of convicted criminals around the streets.

Police recommend almost any method that increases communication.

CMPD Sgt. Rich Stahnke said e-mail chains have grown increasingly effective, with many people accessing e-mail consistently during weekdays. Message boards, which police often peruse and post messages to, have replaced the “backyard fence gossip lines” of the past in helping police learn about what's occurring in a neighborhood, Stahnke said.

“It increases the flow of information both ways,” he said. “We can't police in a vacuum. We have to have that input from citizens.”

Many area neighborhoods use a message board on their Web sites, but Dilworth and Plaza Midwood might represent the most popular. Residents of the two neighborhoods often post reports of break-ins, stolen items and unfamiliar people seen in their areas.

Residents of Olmsted Park took it a step further a few weeks ago by posting laminated posters with the mug shots of two convicted criminals, who allegedly committed crimes in the area.

“It's a good deterrent,” said Olmsted Park Neighborhood Association president Phil Reitano, “because then criminals are going to know that people are looking at their faces.”

Scott Yamanashi, a part-time bouncer, raised controversy when he and others in June started an armed patrol in Plaza Midwood after a shooting at the Snug Harbor bar.

“Everyone (with a gun permit) has got the right to go around armed in the neighborhood,” Stahnke said. “I would just rather see trained professionals be present, rather than someone wandering around with a gun.”

One strategy – the hiring of off-duty police – has worked for Dilworth in recent months. After a string of high-profile robberies and assaults, Dilworth raised more than $50,000 for extra neighborhood patrols. Since off-duty patrols began in April, the number of crimes has dropped from 144 that month to 97 in July. Myers Park residents have also reported success with off-duty patrols.

Willis, the moderator of Plaza Midwood's neighborhood watch message board, is now testing and getting feedback on the placing of video cameras in Plaza Midwood. He's helped coordinate the selecting of 14 grid captains throughout the neighborhood, with only three grids without a leader. The grid captains organize contacts in their part of town to more quickly communicate if a crime is happening or an unknown person's seen.

The system, Willis said, is helping bring the neighborhood together.

“At least people are talking,” he said. “At least people are going out and knowing their neighbors and knowing who should be on the street and who shouldn't.”