November 29, 2021

A proactive approach

Neighborhood watches look for more than just crime

Joe McIntyre/staff photographer

Area resident and neighborhood watch member Alexandra Mikowski walks down Owego Street in Cortland on Wednesday. Mikowski is the watch coordinator for Cortland’s Fifth Ward, which runs from Clayton Avenue to Lansing Avenue and across to Sunnyfield Drive.

As Freeville looks to start a Neighborhood Watch, don’t expect people lurking behind their curtains waiting to catch someone doing something bad. In a program similar to Cortland’s, they’ll mostly be good neighbors.

“See something, say something” applies to more than just crime, police said. It can apply to people who see hunger, or emotional problems, or even just a burned-out street light. Neighborhood watchers won’t just call police, they’ll provide information on any number of assistance programs and resources.

It’s a recent twist for an idea that’s nearly a half-century old.

In 1972, the National Sheriff’s Association established the National Neighborhood Watch program in response to increases in crime during the 1960s. It is one of the oldest neighborhood watch programs in America.

Tompkins County sheriff’s Deputy Karl Bowers helped establish a group in Freeville in September, which operate similar to programs in Cortland, where community-oriented Officer Jesse Abbott coordinates the Neighbors on Watch program to deter crime.

“I think the signs put people on notice that the community is united and the backside is that the people are watching as well,” Bowers said.

Abbott added offering other lifestyle resources is important.

Rifled vehicles in Freeville

The village of Freeville used its listserv to tell neighbors about a rash of car break-ins. It is establishing a Neighborhood Watch — it’s a trademarked term for programs run by sheriff’s departments — through the Tompkins County Sheriff’s office. Freeville is the fifth community in the county to start one, Bowers said.

“We’ve had some issues with vehicles being rifled through at night,” Neighborhood Watch Coordinator Stephanie Goddard said.

It was easy to create a watch group in Freeville, though, as it already has a listserv providing information to people.

“I think it’s easier for us to push information to these listservs,” Bowers said. “Typically, when we go into the neighborhoods you find that a lot of people don’t know their neighbors and the watches are about getting the community back together and knowing what’s going on.”

Goddard will work with Bowers to distribute information about crime in the area.

“He pointed out communication goes both ways,” Goddard said.

Bowers said that as time progresses he could see the groups using social media more to communicate. Meeting once a year is a current requirement through the sheriff’s program.

Misperceptions in Cortland

In Cortland, one of the watch’s challenges is to overcome a lasting misperception about the city’s south side neighborhoods. The perceptionis that it’s crime-ridden; the reality isthat it’s no worse than the rest of thecity, and it’s decreasing, Abbott said.

“Unfortunately these situations that maybe the south end deals with are anywhere, any ward throughout the city,” Abbott said. “It’s not just isolated to that area.”

Abbott doesn’t remember the south end of the city being bad. He remembers playing at his grandmother’s house on Pine Street and he lives
on the south side later when he started his own family.

“I have some of the greatest memories on the south end, on Pine Street,” he said.

But the south side, like the rest of the city, lacks knowledge about resources available to it, he said.

It’s something both Amanda Funk and Alexandra Mikowski have had to deal with. Funk began the community watch group about five years ago, handing the duties over to Mikowski when she moved.

Mikowski said much of the misperception started over outcry for a former railroad station turned-bar on South Avenue and Main Street.

The neighborhood rumor was that it was being used as a slum house.

Abbott said police never really knew what the setup was like, but that it was run down. People currently live in the upstairs apartments, Abbott said.

Watch helps south side improve

Cortland’s south side is improving, said city police Officer Jesse Abbott, and community watch groups can take some of the credit.

Neighbors on Watch Coordinator Alexandra Mickowski couldn’t agree more.

She moved into the neighborhood after graduate school. She said since establishing a neighborhood watch group five years ago, the area has gotten better.

From January 2017 to early December 2017 Cortland police responded to more than 340 service calls in the three-block area around South Avenue. That’s less than one call a day and not all of the calls were for crimes.

However the city statistics show the number of calls and arrests are dropping. In 2016, the neighborhood had 492 calls in 366 days, 1 1/3 calls per day.

Abbott credits this in part to neighborhood watch signs in communities and the people who participate in them.

“If they know that people are active then, yeah, it’s a big deterrent,” he said.

A 2008 U.S. Justice Department meta-analysis reviewing 18 studies about neighborhood watches found that they contributed to a “significant reduction in crime,” about 16 percent.

However, the study noted that there was insufficient data to show why the reduction was happening.

“It is not immediately clear why Neighborhood Watch is associated with a reduction in crime; however, it is possible that the reductions were associated with some of the essential features of the Neighborhood Watch programs,” the analysis states.

“I think it’s gotten people to connect more,” Mikowski said. “You want a good place to live work and play. People might have drastic different political ideas or sports teams they like or whatever, but we can come together and look out for each other.”

— Shenandoah Briere

Community liaisons

Mikowski acts a liaison between residents of the south end and city Alderman William Carpenter. She is the watch coordinator for Cortland’s Fifth Ward, which runs from Clayton Avenue to Lansing Avenue and across to Sunnyfield Drive.

“A lot of the time I’m just referring it on to our alderman, but sometimes they want to talk to a neighbor first,” she said.

The conversations aren’t always about crime, but quality-of-life topics, too, like when flooding occurs in the neighborhood or if someone needs a specific service, but doesn’t know where to find it.

“There are a lot of situations where somebody needs something and there’s a community program that would meet that need, they just don’t know,” Mikowski said.

Building a relationship

The concept of better community policing is something Abbott wanted to implement when he took the community-oriented beat in early 2017. He established Neighbors on Watch to get residents to feel more comfortable with reaching out to the police for both crimes and nonemergency needs.

“Civil organizations like Neighbors on Watch or Neighborhood Watch can really help build that relationship between local law enforcement and the community and have them work together,” Abbott said. “It’s about being proactive, not reactive.”

Cortland’s south side has a racially diverse population, Mikowski said; it can be difficult for police to gain people’s trust.

“It’s trying to help folks see the police as a partner, not there to get them in trouble,” she said. “It’s also teaching the police about what leads people to commit crimes.”

People may steal something, Mikowski said, but maybe they hit a rough financial patch and were desperate. Police, through the watch, could find a way to get them help.

“So you’re addressing the real heart of the problem,” Mikowski said.

Abbott said there is another watch group on Madison Street that resident Mark Kelly started.

“He’s taken the bull by the horn down in that area by the 7-Eleven,” Abbott said. The group will occasionally meet at the Elks Lodge on Groton Avenue.

However, the idea of meeting every month has changed because of social media.

“The communications so much easier, you don’t have to have an established meeting every month,” Abbott said.

Mikowski said since creating a Facebook page, people have been more willing to comment. “Let’s promote getting people what they need and passing along people’s concerns because people’s concerns are definitely valid,” Mikowski said.

Abbott also suggested a phone tree could pass along information.

Making a better neighborhood

“I’d like to see every ward have that and to make it official with the city of Cortland,” Abbott said. “It’s all about getting people involved and some people just don’t want to.”

Mikowski’s group started with 100 people, but now has just 24, Abbott said. It’s one of the larger groups in the city. The Cortland County Sheriff’s office also has a Neighborhood Watch program for years, but no groups are currently active.

“What I tell people is it’s volunteer but it’s not something you’re doing every single day,” Abbott said. “There are a lot of people who like to run or walk so why not be a part of it.”

In Freeville most of the people already know each other, it’s what makes having a watch group there easy and important, Bowers said.

Goddard noted so far people are excited to see what comes of having the program.

And in the end, Mikowski said by helping the police, people are making their neighborhood a much better place.

“The police department needs the help of the community,” Abbott said. “We have 30 patrolmen working three different shifts, so we can’t always see and hear everything going on. We really depend on the community being our eyes and ears and feeling safe to reach out to us and let us know what’s going on.”