Community watches: Looking out for your neighborhood

  • Posted: Wednesday, June 26, 2013 12:01 a.m.
    UPDATED: Wednesday, June 26, 2013 12:02 a.m.
Staff photo by Teddy Kulmala
A Neighborhood Watch sign is seen in Crosland Park. Many neighborhoods in the City of Aiken have started neighborhood associations.
Staff photo by Teddy Kulmala A Neighborhood Watch sign is seen in Crosland Park. Many neighborhoods in the City of Aiken have started neighborhood associations.

Tonya Stroman knew Crosland Park had a reputation when she moved to the neighborhood two years ago.

“I was kind of skeptical of moving in because of the reputation it had, and the look of some of the property,” she said. “If you don't take a chance of trying to make something different, then it's always gonna be the same.”

Stroman wanted to make a change, which is why she joined the Crosland Park Neighborhood Association shortly after arriving. She is now the association's president.

According to Gary Yount, former president, the association has been around since 2008.

“We did this because of the Crosland Park initiative that the City was going to undertake, which, as far as I know is still going on,” he said. As part of the initiative, the City of Aiken purchased some homes in the neighborhood, refurbished them and placed them up for sale for people with low incomes.

“They wanted to see a neighborhood organization that could work in concert with that and maybe inspire the neighborhood to become more involved than it had been,” Yount said.

What it does

The organization hosts a variety of events in the neighborhood, including holiday get-togethers, potluck dinners and health fairs.

They also hold regular meetings, with guests from the City Council and department heads, Yount said.

The organization charges members $5 to be a part of it, which covers the cost of hosting the numerous events.

Most recently, the association teamed up with Leadership Aiken County for the Safe Routes to School Project, which cleared out trees and overgrowth between the neighborhood and North Aiken Elementary and Aiken Middle schools, making it safer for children to walk to and from school.

Yount and Stroman said the community, which has been plagued by crime, has seen less of it and more cooperation with law enforcement.

“We're the liaison between the residents and the City of Aiken police department,” Stroman said. “You had a lot of people who did not like talking to police because of fear of retaliation.”

Yount said he attended a conference in Columbia last year.

“(A speaker) said, 'When you get right down to it, a crime watch situation is really nothing more than the average citizen looking out for his neighbors,'” he said. “So for me, we should have a neighborhood-wide crime watch in that respect.”

The association doesn't have a large group committed to looking out for crime; but rather, the decreased crime is a symptom of greater presence in the neighborhood, according to Yount.

Getting started

Cynthia Mitchell, neighborhood services coordinator for the Aiken Department of Public Safety, said they get numerous calls from people interested in starting neighborhood associations or crime watch groups, many of whom live in neighborhoods that already have a group established.

“What we encourage is, if there's someone interested in a crime watch, to talk with a few of their neighbors and see what the interest is,” she said. “From there, if they decide that, yeah, we want to get something a little more formalized, they're encouraged to call us here at Public Safety.”

Mitchell said a neighborhood only needs three or four interested individuals to get a group going. Aiken Public Safety can provide information on how to get the word out, and even arrange for an officer to come speak at a meeting about crime patterns in a neighborhood.

Aiken Public Safety doesn't keep a record of every association or watch group, but Mitchell said representatives from each group are invited to join the Aiken Council of Neighborhoods.

“The main thing is, we want to establish relationships with the different neighborhoods within the city so that we can have good communication with them,” she said. “What we have found over the years, so many times, the neighborhoods are having some of the same concerns, they're dealing with the same issues. We find that maybe one neighborhood has found a creative way of dealing with something; another neighborhood may not know about it, and if they never get to the table and start talking about it, we just operate in these individual pockets and don't get anywhere.”

'The best medicine'

One organization has a monthly safety walk, during which children make posters, carry them through the streets and chant while being escorted by a Public Safety officer, according to Mitchell.

“When there is activity buzzing, when people are out and about being seen, that decreases the opportunity for negative activity,” she said. “If someone wants to come into a neighborhood and do something illegal, one of those neighborhoods where there are people walking and active and looking is probably not the neighborhood to choose.”

Low membership numbers continue to be a problem for the Crosland Park neighborhood.

“I don't think we ever achieved as great as a participation as I would like to have seen, and to tell you why, I really can't,” Yount said.

Stroman said she plans to keep the association “consistent” in what it has been doing, and has been pushing the association's Facebook page: Crosland Park Neighborhood Association.

“I would persuade people to make a difference in their community,” she said. “It's all about having pride where you live. If we don't stand up for our community or development or subdivision, who's gonna do it?”

Mitchell encouraged people to be on the lookout for their neighbors and neighborhood, and to call Public Safety if something seems suspicious.

“How these crime watch groups and associations really help is, neighbors get to know each other,” she said. “It seems like, in crime prevention, we say this all the time and it seems so simple, but it actually is the best medicine: Get to know your neighbors. Get to know each other's routines, and when something is out of the ordinary, I better call Public Safety.”

Teddy Kulmala covers the crime beat for the Aiken Standard and has been with the newspaper since August 2012. He is a native of Williston and majored in communication studies at Clemson University.

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