By Derik Vanderford
LOCKHART — The Lockhart Town Council and residents of the town met Tuesday night to discuss the possible implementation of a community crime watch program.
As Tuesday night’s meeting began, Lockhart’s Mayor Ailene Ashe told those in attendance about an incident in which a light was stolen from the top of a water tower on Summit Drive in Lockhart, meaning someone had to climb the tall tower to remove the light.
“We’ve got to come out of our houses; quit getting on our cell phones; and get down to business,” Ashe said. “We’ve got to do what we need to do to protect this town.”
Ashe then introduced Union County Sheriff David Taylor, who began a presentation about the implementation of a neighborhood crime watch program in the Town of Lockhart.
“The thing that’s happened to Lockhart has happened to all the former mill communities,” Taylor said. “It’s not the same as it was 20 years ago when the mill was open. You don’t know who your neighbors are anymore.”
Taylor explained that society in former mill towns has become more transient, with people moving in and leaving soon after rent is due.
“We’re having the same problem in Buffalo,” Taylor said. “People are roaming the streets all night.”
Taylor said Master Sgt. Wendy Childers — who was also in attendance at the meeting — is heading up a crime watch program in the Ottaray community. Taylor said the sheriff’s office can provide the methods, means and information for the program, but it has to be run by members of the community. He then addressed the importance of such a program, referring back to the crime of theft from the top of the water tower.
“If they’re brave enough to climb on that tower, are they brave enough to go in and contaminate the water?” Taylor asked.
Taylor explained to residents and council members that neighborhood crime watch programs are simply groups of people who keep an eye out and report any suspicious people or activities in their local area to police. Depending on the group’s interests, the group can conduct regular educational programs, public service training, or property identification programs. Each of the group’s members collaborates and determines the goal and direction of its activities.
Taylor reiterated that the need for such a program is there.
“We don’t have any stability in our (Lockhart) community,” Taylor said. “People come in from Chester County, sell drugs, and go back across the bridge. They know they’re on the county line and we can’t chase them into Chester and Chester can’t chase them here.”
Taylor mentioned that such programs are not a form of vigilantism, and group members do not chase bad guys, interrupt a burglary in progress, or track down perpetrators. They look out for problems and report them to police.
Taylor also said the group allows members to get to know each other and know who lives in their neighborhood as opposed to who is just visiting, passing through or waiting around for a chance to steal.
“You would discuss where you see movement or people hanging out all hours,” Taylor said. “You share information with each other. Look for houses with lots of traffic.”
Taylor said the watch program will — with guidance from a law enforcement agency — train its members in home security techniques, observation skills and crime reporting. Taylor told those in attendance there are some techniques which can help prevent crime at their homes, such as keeping shrubbery or low-hanging limbs away from porches, eliminating a place to help perpetrators hide. He also talked about ways to keep burglars from knowing whether or not anyone is home. Taylor said a technique he uses at his own home is keeping deer cameras around his yard.
“Anyone who comes in my yard, I have a picture of them,” he said, adding that after officers put a similar camera at an abandoned building, they caught someone stealing within 30 minutes.
Taylor said cell phones could be a helpful tool in catching criminals, as people were arrested after a recent local shooting because of video footage captured on a witness’ cell phone.
Taylor said physical conditions such as abandoned cars or overgrown vacant lots also contribute to crime, and he said the program could sponsor clean-ups, encourage residents to beautify the area, and ask them to turn on outdoor lights at night.
“Trash breeds trash,” Taylor said. “Until you get control of trash, you can’t get control of crime.”
Taylor said that once a watch program is adopted, a chairperson should be elected, and there should be block captain volunteers who are responsible for relaying information to members on their block, keeping up to date information on residents, and making special efforts to involve the elderly, working parents and young people. Block captains also can serve as liaisons between the neighborhood and the police, communicating information about meetings and crime incidents to all residents.
Taylor said the program’s communication with the sheriff’s office is critical to its credibility since it would be the major source of information on local crime patterns, home security and other crime prevention education and crime reporting. He said there should also be a regular means of communicating with members such as a newsletter, telephone tree, email and other means.
Taylor said the watch program could be a great help to his office since it has been down five officers since budget cuts.
“We are doing more with less,” he said. “Our communities are going to have to get involved.”
Taylor encouraged everyone to visit the Union County Sheriff’s Office website — www.unionscsheriff.com — as it has been re-vamped to be more user-friendly, informative and educational. Some of the links on the site provide information about child support services, domestic violence programs, Crime Stoppers, sex offender registry, “deadbeat parents,” and State Law Enforcement Division.