Local watch programs fight crime

The members of the Neighborhood Watch at the Altoona Housing Authority’s downtown 11th Street Tower may not look like typical crime fighters, but when it comes to keeping a watchful eye on their neighborhood, they’re certainly superheroes.

“Most of the people are in wheelchairs,” said Herb Plowman, 76, who heads up the tower’s neighborhood watch of about 15 people. “They wear their vests and ride around the parking lot. If they see anything suspicious, they don’t approach. We don’t approach nobody.

“What we do if we see someone suspicious is call the office if it’s open or security or call 911,” Plowman said.

In Blair County, the 11th Street Tower’s Neighborhood Watch is one of the most active, with monthly meetings and regular training. Unfortunately, according to area law enforcement, keeping people active in a neighborhood watch becomes more difficult the more group becomes effective.

“Apathy has set in a little bit,” said Tyrone Police Chief John Romeo of efforts in Tyrone to spark renewed interest in the all-volunteer effort. Tyrone police, working with Operation Our Town, hosted eight or nine meetings over the past year, Romeo said, with the goal of educating and motivating residents to take ownership of their neighborhoods.

“That’s where the whole program lies,” said Romeo, noting that the concepts of a neighborhood watch are simple and effective.

First, be aware of your surroundings, Romeo said. In their day-to-day lives, people can take note of what is going on around them and often pick up on things that seem out of place or suspicious. Romeo said rather than confront suspicious people or activity, residents need only take note and call the police.

“It’s neighbors watching neighbors,” Romeo said, noting that in neighborhoods crime can be thwarted when people know when neighbors are away on vacation or what kind of vehicles people drive.

Most importantly, Romeo said, don’t be afraid to contact police.

“We expect in having a neighborhood watch program to have the calls go way up,” Romeo said. Romeo said it’s the job of police to look into these types of reports, much like the Push Out The Pusher Hotline sponsored by Operation Our Town.

Blair County Sheriff Mitch Cooper said a reluctance on the part of citizens to bother police is an obstacle.

“People are concerned; they don’t want to bother police with a false alarm,” Cooper said. “That’s what we’re here for. Trust your instincts, and don’t be afraid to report it and let the police look into it.

“We’d much rather have an officer respond and not find a crime rather than activity not reported that turns out to be a crime,” Cooper said.

At the Booker T. Washington playgrounds at 19th Street and 13th Avenue, the watchful eyes of neighbors has ensured the relatively new facilities haven’t succumbed to graffiti, noted Bernie Chatman, a retired decorated state trooper who until recently lived on the block.

Although Chatman has moved elsewhere in the city, he still makes a point of using the playground with his grandson or just stopping by to talk to the young people who gather to play basketball or hang out.

“It’s up to us to take back ownership and protect our property,” said Chatman, who noted that early on after the playground was built in 2011 (the basketball court across the street was completed in 2009), graffiti appeared.

Chatman said all it took was talking to kids at the playground and basketball courts after the incident to find out who was responsible, then contacting the juveniles’ parents – as well as the police – to see the situation turn around.

“We haven’t had another piece of graffiti up there,” Chatman said.

But it wasn’t magic, it was the neighborhood.

“We have 10 neighbors up there who watch that playground 24 hours a day,” Chatman said.

It’s folks like neighbors Terry and Cathy Bookhamer, who said they haven’t encountered too many issues with the building of the playground and like the positive changes the complex has brought to the neighborhood.

“When they first [built the playground], there was graffiti,” said Cathy Bookhamer, 56, a 25-year resident of the neighborhood. “My husband painted over it because it was the N-word. But it’s been really good so far.”

Bookhamer said the basketball courts host tournaments and the Eighteenth Street Community Church holds its block party in the neighborhood, all positive changes from when the property was vacant houses.

“We keep an eye on it,” said Cathy Bookhamer.

“It’s the best thing to happen to the neighborhood,” said Terry Bookhamer, 57, who noted the biggest problems at the park have come from “outsiders” and not neighborhood kids. Terry Bookhamer said he was laid off for a time recently so he had an opportunity to watch over the playground and found that most times simply talking to the kids takes care of any potential problems. The police have been called, he said recalling an incident with a dirt bike.

“I decided to call the police because I figured he would just come back if I yelled at him,” Terry Bookhamer said. “The police, they talked to him, and he hasn’t been back.”

The success of the complex, he said, has a lot to do with the fact people value the park and so the neighborhood keeps an eye on what goes on there.

“You see other parks throughout Altoona,” Terry Bookhamer said. “There’s no comparison.”

Chatman said training and education is key to people involved in a neighborhood watch, and he pointed to the Trayvon Martin shooting in Florida as an example of what a neighborhood watch member should never do.

“You have no authority,” Chatman said of a resident who belongs to a neighborhood watch. Chatman pointed out that in the case of Treyvon Martin, it likely would have ended differently had George Zimmerman simply called police and not confronted Martin. He said how Zimmerman confronted Martin spoke volumes.

Chatman said Zimmerman could have simply approached Martin in a non-confrontational way and even identified himself as a member of the neighborhood watch to explain to him that the neighborhood had experienced some problems and so he wanted to let him know who he was and what he was doing.

Instead, Zimmerman went beyond his authority and duty, and it ended it tragedy, one that Chatman said is upsetting because it Zimmerman’s interaction was, from the beginning, based on fear. The case also shows what happens when people aren’t properly trained to simply observe and report and not confront.

“That’s as far as it goes,” Chatman said. “You don’t take it any further.”

Chatman said the city is fortunate to have police who respond and follow up.

“We’re blessed to have the police force we have,” Chatman said, adding that residents also need to come together to make Altoona a great community.

Cooper said apathy is probably the biggest hurdle to keeping Neighborhood Watch programs going long term. When something bad happens in a neighborhood or a series of crimes hits, people become very involved, Cooper said. Also, people are busy, especially if they have children, and it makes it difficult for people to find the time if everything appears to be all right where they live.

“When it’s solved and make arrests, people don’t attend,” Cooper said. “You want folks to stay involved so you have the opportunity to stay on top of it. You can’t combat crime in those neighborhoods where the residents aren’t involved.”

Cooper said the Green Avenue and 11th Street towers residents are a great example of an active neighborhood watch. With Operational Our Town’s support, Cooper said it’s his hope those kinds of efforts pop up though out Blair County.

Back at the 11th Street Tower, Plowman, a retired Blair County Prison guard, said that before the neighbors started watching over the towers and the parking lots, there were car break-ins, vandalism and other nuisance crimes that have a strong impact on residents’ lives.

Plowman said getting together monthly helps the members stay on top of what is going on and reminds members of what they can and can’t do as part of the neighborhood watch. They raise a little money here and there, especially at the Fourth of July picnic, so members can have flashlights, a vest and paper and a pen.

When the group first formed more than four years ago, Plowman and another resident patrolled the parking lots all night because of a rash of car break-ins.

“That has ceased,” Plowman said, both of the all-night patrols and the break-ins. That doesn’t mean no one is watching. Residents sitting out on their balconies can and do a lot, he said.

“With all this lighting, you can see almost everything that is going on,” Plowman said.