Sept. 12, 1982
By Evelyn Philips
‘I thought we’d better get the citizens back into what they did in the old days,” said Inspector Harold McCormick of the Suffolk County Police Department. ”When I became commander of the Second Precinct here a year ago, whenever I had a call asking me, ‘What are you doing about these burglaries?’ I threw the question back and asked, ‘What are you doing?’ ”
But the inspector himself was surprised at the success of the rapidly growing Neighborhood Watch program, to which he attributed a good part of the credit for a 21 percent drop in the precinct’s burglary rate from July 1981 to July 1982.
The Second Precinct, centered in Huntington, contains a population of 200,000 in an area of 100 square miles and is patrolled by 20 police cars. Inspector McCormick estimated that 15,000 people belonging to 40 units took part in Neighborhood Watch programs. The members of a Neighborhood Watch unit stay in their homes – or, if they go outside, on their own property -and keep a sharp eye out for suspicious events in adjacent driveways, front lawns and backyards.
”Neighborhood Watch programs are probably more active in Huntington than anywhere else in the county,” said Suffolk County Legislator Jane Devine, who acts as ”a liaison or conduit between residents and the police to help these groups organize and keep organized.”
The organizing of Neighborhood Watch programs nationwide began about 10 years ago, and they now operate in about 2,500 communities. What has happened in Huntington is an example of a wide variety of responses by Long Island residents to what they perceive as an alarming escalation in crimes against themselves, their homes and their property. Neighborhood Watch programs, civilian motor patrols, paid security guards and auxiliary police units have been initiated, both by established civic associations and by newly formed groups of residents who have never before been involved in organized community activities.
Many residents and officials regard this mushrooming of citizen participation in crime prevention as wholly positive. They point out that both Nassau and Suffolk show a marked decrease in the number of burglaries in the past year.
However, some skepticism exists about assessing the value of such programs without considering other crime-inhibiting factors. Also, many police officers who welcomed the Neighborhood Watch program, and the traditional auxiliary police units, express uneasiness about expansion by civilians into sophisticated monitoring operations and automobile patrol programs.
Other observers have said they fear Big Brother-like violations of privacy, and some voice concern that when ”people on the block” talk about guarding the neighborhood from ”outsiders,” they are practicing racism, whether it be unspoken or overt.
Kenneth Cynar, an assistant to Police Commissioner Samuel Rozzi of Nassau County, said the department encouraged the formation of Neighborhood Watch units.
But he added that, when it came to cruising around in cars, the department was concerned about the volunteers’ own safety as well as about their possible intrusion into the private affairs of others. He said that insufficiently trained, autonomous mobile citizen units might be ”stepping over the line between being ‘the eyes and ears of the police’ and civilians playing cops and robbers.”
Mr. Cynar expressed anxiety about possible vigilantism and unconstitutional harassment. ”The community has a right to do what they want to,” he said, ”but just because we have a liaison with them doesn’t mean we endorse and approve what they’re doing.”
Lieut. Donald Oehl of the Third Precinct in Nassau is the department’s liaison with the security patrol of the Roslyn Country Club Civic Association. He said he had suggested to the residents of the Roslyn Country Club development that they set up a conventional Neighborhood Watch or an auxiliary police program. Instead, however, they decided at a 600-member association meeting in March to set up a volunteer civilian security patrol.
Paula Broxmeyer, the civic association’s health and safety chairman, heads the volunteer patrol. She said that it maintained ”at least three cars on the road 24 hours a day.” The private cars are driven by pairs of volunteers who serve for several hours about once every four months on a regular schedule, she said. The cars are supplied with association-owned CB radios for each tour of duty.
Mrs. Broxmeyer said 800 volunteers had so far been recruited from the 705 houses in the development. At their one-session training course they receive a list of written instructions that include ”Don’t leave your car” and ”Don’t carry weapons of any kind.” They carry a log sheet upon which to record their observations. Emergencies – possible crimes, fires, accidents – are reported to an operator at a nearby base who then calls 911.
In February, Mrs. Broxmeyer, who had been one of several women robbed at a mah-jongg game in neighboring Albertson, ”felt I had to do something about it.”
After a period of research and organization, she said, the security patrol began on the July 4 weekend. More than 30 signs have been posted at entrances to the development announcing that the patrol is in operation.
Mr. Cynar said he believed that, despite a decrease in burglaries, many Long Islanders had ”a fear of crime that they didn’t have before these spectacular crimes occurred.”
He was referring to the mah-jongg robbery; the robbery-related slaying of Leon Sterns, a lawyer, in Roslyn Harbor; an episode of robbery and terror in an Old Westbury diner, and similar widely reported crimes.
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Mr. Cynar maintained that many of these had been committed by a single group that had recently been taken into custody. Members of another group that had committed an often-remembered series of ”driveway robberies” in affluent North Shore areas were arrested some time ago, he said.
Both Mr. Cynar and William McKean, an assistant to Police Commissioner Donald Dilworth of Suffolk County, called attention to a combination of possible causes for the recent drop in the burglary rate.
”In 1981,” Mr. McKean said, ”burglaries were down 10 percent from 1980 in Suffolk, and figures for the first six months of 1982 show we are down 26 percent. It’s a trend and I’m sure Neighborhood Watch is one factor.”
But another factor, he said, is the ”vigorous prosecution by a special bureau in the District Attorney’s office working closely with the burglary unit in each precinct.”
In Nassau, burglaries have dropped 17.6 percent in the first half of 1982, according to figures released by Commissioner Rozzi’s office. Most incidents of vandalism and burglary in the county, Mr. Cynar said, are committed by young people in their own or adjoining neighborhoods. He attributed what he described as the considerable progress in crime prevention to town and village enactment of ”open container” laws that allow the police to arrest youths congregating and drinking beer in public places.
In addition, Mr. Cynar said, the Nassau Crime Resistance Unit had been doubled to 32 officers, four of whom are assigned to each of the county’s precincts, ”working nights to deal with this problem.”
Other factors, he said, include ”sting” operations – in which officers pose as receivers of stolen goods -conducted by the District Attorney’s office and the police, and new ordinances regulating secondhand shops that have made stolen goods more difficult to dispose of.
There are other examples of growth in citizens’ anticrime activities throughout the Island. On the State University campus at Stony Brook, an effort to stem vandalism and burglary among the almost 8,000 students living in dormitories was started more than a year ago by Steve Cohen, a biology major. What began as a lookout group of 20 students had become a 900-member volunteer resident dormitory patrol by the time classes concluded last spring.
Officer Stephen Fleming of the State University Police Crime Prevention Unit said that at that time his office was receiving only 25 percent of the burglary calls that formerly came from Stony Brook dormitories, and that the campuswide drop in crime was at least 50 percent. Reactivation of the patrol is under way as campus activity has resumed.
Residents of the nearby Three Village area of Stony Brook, Setauket and Old Field began to organize similar patrols at the same time, although they were unaware of the activity on campus. A Suffolk police brochure soliciting neighborhood watch members reached the office of The Village Times. This led to an editorial in that newspaper, followed by a public meeting called by the publisher of The Times, Leah Dunaief. This, in turn, led to the formation of an alliance of 70 neighborhood groups made up of more than 700 families, according to Ann Fossam, the managing editor.
”We collect the names of people who want to join and pass them on to the police,” she said. The program came to the attention of Henrietta Acampora, who had taken office last January as Brookhaven Town Supervisor and had declared March as Neighborhood Watch Month.
”It’s grown in leaps and bounds,” she said. She added that retired people, in particular, could monitor events on their blocks and safeguard homes that are vulnerable during the day while both parents are at work and their children are at school.
”Their duty is to notify the police -not to endanger themselves by interfering in any way,” the Supervisor added. ”We’re working on erecting signs as you enter Brookhaven Town from all directions saying, ‘This is a Neighborhood Watch area’. That’s very effective.”
In Nassau County, June Nemet, a resident of East Hills, agrees that such signs are effective. She is president of the Country Estates Civic Association, which hired a commercial security company last March to protect 500 member families in this hilly and wooded community of 527 houses.
”We started with a $35 fee for each house for six months’ service,” Mrs. Nemet said. This month, she said, the hours of coverage will be increased and the cost raised to $60.
The service includes responding to subscribers who expect to arrive at home late in the evening, and meeting them in their driveways. The guards punch in at stated places at regular intervals, and are spotchecked by company supervisors.
”I feel that if a potential perpetrator sees a marked car with a rack light on top, it is a deterrent,” Mrs. Nemet said. Late in July, an advertisement appeared in The Great Neck Record calling upon residents to ”help reduce crime and vandalism” by volunteering for the Great Neck Central Auxiliary Police then being jointly formed by the villages of Great Neck Plaza, Russell Gardens and Thomaston. The ad said that 13 weeks of training by Nassau police would begin in mid-September.
Edward Hall, a Great Neck Plaza village trustee, said that the formation of the unit stemmed from a conversation a month earlier at a meeting of the Great Neck Village Officials Association. Unlike some of the nine villages on the peninsula, the three municipalities involved do not have their own police departments. They are served by the Nassau police, Mr. Hall said, and ”don’t have enough say on where the cops are.”
Almost 40 people attended an orientation meeting last month with police representatives. In neighboring Lake Success, a village with its own police department, a volunteer civilian patrol has ceased to exist. It was formed about a year ago ”when people were a little frightened,” according to Reuben Kershaw, the Mayor. ”After several months, people became less interested and it petered out,” he said.
Forty Thousand Pairs of Eyes is the name of a neighborhood-watching program that has been in existence for more than a decade in the south Nassau community of Freeport. ”The whole village is involved, rather than just a block or a neighborhood,” said Freeport Police Chief Anthony Elar.
A new development, however, is the formation of mobile civilian patrols by several Freeport civic associations. Citizens have been encouraged to ride around their neighborhoods and to notify the police if they notice suspicious activities. They are asked not to leave their cars, however, when this occurs.
Only a few weeks ago, some residents of Freeport’s northwest section happened to return home from an orientation meeting with the police just as a burglary was taking place in their neighborhood. Among the officers who arrived and successfully apprehended the burglary suspects, Chief Elar said, was the detective who had conducted the meeting.
These and many other instances of intense interest by citizens in crime-prevention programs have drawn the attention of state legislators. At a recent press conference for weekly newspaper editors, State Senators Ralph J. Marino and Michael J. Tully announced joint plans to hold fall hearings on a series of proposals dealing with teen-age crime.
One of Senator Marino’s suggestions would grant funds under certain circumstances to nonprofit community groups and auxiliary police units conducting crime watch programs in conjunction with the local police.
A version of this article appears in print on Sept. 12, 1982, Section 11, Page 1 of the National edition with the headline: COMMUNITIES TAKE ROLE IN WATCH ON CRIME