May 1983: When Citizens Fight Back (Newsday)

May 29, 1983
By Irene Virag

THE NIGHT THAT Paula Broxmeyer became a crime victim, she did everything the two armed robbers told her to do. She handed over her money and her jewelry and got down on the floor to pick up the scattered pieces of a broken bracelet. She stayed calm while a masked man waved a gun in her face – and when the other masked man with the ax turned off the lights and yelled at her to put her head on the coffee table, she said a silent prayer and closed her eyes.

She did as she was told.

A few minutes later the men were gone. That’s when Paula Broxmeyer started to fight back.

“I couldn’t, I wouldn’t fight while it was happening,” she said. “But when it was over, when that horrible night was finally over and I was still alive, then from somewhere deep inside I had to find the strength to fight back — and to keep fighting.

“When I was on my knees, with someone with an ax at my head and a gun, and filled with terror beyond belief, I decided I would never go down on my knees again for anyone and that I had to work to make things safer.”

Two weeks after the robbery, the suburban housewife who had never before attended a civic meeting stood in front of 600 members of the Roslyn Country Club Civic Association and talked about the community’s need for an organized anticrime program. This 31-year-old mother of two told the roomful of strangers her neighbors – about the 45-minute “commando raid” she and four friends had survived when they met to play mah-jongg on the night of Feb. 9, 1982 and the robbers burst in through the unlocked front door.

Then, she told them that if it could happen to her it could happen to anyone, that the police alone could do nothing to stop it, that it was up to them to help keep crime at bay.

The community of Roslyn was ready for Paula Broxmeyer’s message. It took less than five months to organize more than 700 families in the Roslyn Country Club housing development into a 24-hour volunteer civilian patrol – suburban surveillance teams that drive their cars up and down tree-lined streets, men and women armed with watchful eyes and CB radios that tie them to the local patrol base and, if need be, the police.

Such groups are only a part of the people’s war against crime – a nationwide grass-roots movement that has been reflected in the rush to take self-defense courses and to buy guns, deadbolt locks, guard dogs and security alarms.

A recent Newsday poll showed that 27.1 per cent of Nassau and Suffolk residents belong to neighborhood watch groups. Once regarded with skepticism, such groups now are listed among the more accepted and, some say, effective programs of a wide array of citizen crime prevention efforts.

Today’s civilian patrols and the neighborhood block watch groups from which they have sprung are a throwback to the days when crime prevention was a cooperative venture between the community and the
cop on the beat — when residential streets were as closely knit as families, and neighbors watched out for each other.

“There was a time,” Rose Eisner, a Valley Stream neighborhood activist, says, “when the man and woman on the street realized and accepted the fact that crime prevention is a citizen’s responsibility. Somewhere along the line we lost sight of that and turned the job over completely to the police. That’s when we ran into trouble, that’s when the big questions about how to stop crime hit us over the head.”

On Long Island, some communities have come up with assorted answers. Civic groups in East Hills and Roslyn have hired private security firms to guard member communities; residents of Woodsburgh went to the polls, then to court to win the right to withdraw from the Nassau police department and establish their own force; neighborhood watch groups in Rocky Point shovel snow and decorate the boarded-up homes of summer residents with holiday wreaths to give them a lived-in-look…