Neighborhood Watch programs become a force in La Jolla

The number of La Jolla communities starting Neighborhood Watch programs is growing. Although the national program formed in the 1970s to deter crime and keep residents informed, La Jolla’s neighborhoods are refining the concept to suit their needs on a block-by-block basis. There are more than 10 Neighborhood Watch divisions in La Jolla.

Considered one of the oldest crime prevention projects in North America, Neighborhood Watch was created under the auspices of National Sheriffs Association in 1972 to address a rise in burglaries. Since then, the program has empowered residents to become the eyes and ears of the police department — especially in times of short-staffing and lack of manpower on the force.

San Diego Police Department Community Relations Officer Larry Hesselgesser, who for the last three years has helped neighborhoods start a Watch program, said when he took up his post, the Neighborhood Watch resurgence was on its way in, fueled by several factors. A progressing combination of shortage of officers and laws that gave leniency to certain crimes (and those who commit them), left San Diego police with their hands full, and unable to proactively patrol problem areas.

In 2012, the city passed Proposition B, which imposed a six-year freeze on pay increases, and took away one another appeal for becoming a police officer. Hesselgesser said police candidates would go through San Diego’s academy training and then apply with another agency, or senior officers would transition. “When (potential and senior officers realized) you can do the same work that requires the same training at another agency, but make thousands of dollars more per year, we started to lose officers,” he explained.

In 2014, aspersions were cast on police after Michael Brown, an African-American, was fatally shot by white officers in Ferguson, Missouri and the lead officer was not indicted on charges. This created what is known in the department as the “Ferguson Effect,” which Hesselgesser explained as, “with all the negativity out there from the news media and social media, maybe someone who wanted to be on the force might think this is not the time to be an officer.”

That same year, Proposition 47 passed, which reduced the classification of most “non-serious and nonviolent property and drug crimes” from a felony to a misdemeanor. What previously led to an arrest, could now be concluded with a ticket.

New Millennium Neighborhood Watch

But in 2011, the neighborhood-specific social networking website nextdoor.com launched, and Hesselgesser said it gave Neighborhood Watch programs some teeth.

On Nextdoor.com, residents can post and report suspicious activity or other goings on. Those with profiles on the site must provide their name and address to show they live in that area, and can privately exchange information in seconds.

“Usually a Neighborhood Watch Captain will see something on nextdoor.com and ask me about it, so we’re aware. The best thing is when the neighbors start seeing a series, report the trends, and send that to us,” he said. “The misconception people have about the website is that (the police) can see what people post. We can’t. Users can send me a private message with reports or questions, but until someone does, we don’t see what gets posted.”

Armed with nextdoor.com profiles, many Neighborhood Watch groups have formed with access to 21st Century resources.

How La Jolla uses Neighborhood Watch

Tailoring activities to meet their needs, each community has a different manifestation of the program. In Bird Rock, the Neighborhood Watch chair regularly reports to the Community Council meetings, offering tips from police and updates on area crime trends.

The newest Neighborhood Watch is in the Muirlands area, and began meeting in August after home burglaries got out of hand. Like many other inaugural Neighborhood Watch meetings, Officer Hesselgesser was in attendance to provide advice, resources and general safety information to deter break-ins.

Since then, “We’ve identified captains and are in the process of getting the Neighborhood Watch signs made. We are also setting up a neighborhood communication method so people can share any suspicious activities they see in the neighborhood,” said resident Ruo Steensma. “We will also take action to raise the security issue with the Mayor, Police Chief and other city officials. La Jolla residents pay more than their fair share of taxes, and people feel we are on the city’s low-priority list.”

Although too early to tell if the program is working, residents are optimistic and said they appreciated the guidance from police.

In the Barber Tract, which covers 300 houses, the Barber Tract Neighborhood Association witnessed an increase in illegal drug and alcohol use, due to secluded beach areas with low visibility and minimal police presence. Further, said Neighborhood Watch chair Cynthia Chasen, residents with garages were leaving their cars in the driveway, and burglars were breaking the car windows to access the garage door opener to get inside. Because many residents would not lock the door joining the garage and the house, burglars would walk into the house through the unlocked door.

After pleading for increased law enforcement (but realistic that they might not get it), Neighborhood Watch members gathered funds to privately pay for the installation of cameras on the beach.

“We also ran a campaign to remind homeowners to lock the door from their garage to their home, as the SDPD notified us this was the mechanism of entry the burglars were using,” Chasen said. “This was hugely successful. We also replaced our old sun-beaten Neighborhood Watch signs with new signs this year.”

In the cul-de-sacs that make up the La Jolla Alta One neighborhood, a burglary prompted the formation of a Watch group. “My neighbor across the street is elderly, on oxygen, and in a wheelchair, and was robbed,” said Watch Captain Christie Clark-Edelson. “I was alarmed and thought someone should do something. In April, we neighbors all felt we wanted to get involved.”

At the initial meeting, about 60 people attended, she said, and the Neighborhood Watch has had “great participation” ever since. “There was suspicious activity going on and we all realized we didn’t know each other well enough. But now each cul-de-sac has a captain and co-captain, and we meet quarterly. Now, people are talking and getting to know their neighbors.”

Since the initial burglary, there have not been any neighborhood robberies of which Clark-Edelson is aware.

The efforts of the Neighborhood Watch program for the gated community of Emerald Cove led to the capture and sentencing of a burglar. Following a rash of home invasions that started in December 2015, residents took action and formed the Neighborhood Watch. They started by setting up a communication network to report suspicious activity. When a car was observed in the area with no perceived purpose, residents were ready.

“Instantly, the community took action and there began an incredible collaboration by residents and SDPD that led to making an arrest of the burglar the night of March 9, 2016,” said Neighborhood Watch captain Kathleen Pihl. “Many La Jolla residents went to the police station the following day to identify the recovered stolen property. On July 5, the burglar was sentenced to 19 years, 8 months in state prison.”

Community-wide support

To further deter crime and supplement the Neighborhood Watch programs, some areas have contracted or are considering hiring private security. Most notably, Bird Rock residents met in June to consider contracting with a private security firm to work with police. The hope is by having the patrol car and uniformed footmen in view, criminals will go elsewhere.

In the Barber Tract, a security guard was also hired to keep an eye on beach entrances and watch over houses during problematic times.

To keep the broader community informed on area crime trends, whether or not they have a Neighborhood Watch program, the La Jolla Town Council has also offered to host quarterly Community Watch Forums at their meetings. They meet 5 p.m. second Thursdays at La Jolla Rec Center, 615 Prospect St.

The first forum is scheduled for Sept. 8, and La Jolla Light will report on that meeting in the Sept. 15 issue. The Town Council Community Watch Committee is looking to organize all the Neighborhood Watch Captains. Those interested can contact: neighborhoodwatch@barbertract.com


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