Allegheny County has seen its fair share of crime. Everyday there are new reports of shootings, drug busts, home invasions and more. While the police cannot be everywhere, there are several other tools used to be their eyes and ears in the community. They are the local Neighborhood or Block Watch programs.
Since the ’60s, groups of individuals have been doing their part to provide residents of their communities with a safer, quality neighborhood, even at times when police could not.
While many may think that the days of neighborhood watch programs have gone away, police and community members say they are very much alive. They may be fewer than in the past, but they still do exist.
“Community block watch programs still do exist. The community is the eyes and ears of police departments,” said Officer Michael Gay, community relations officer for the Pittsburgh Police Zone 5 station. “The community is there everyday, we are there when we are called. We are on the reactive side. We would like to be proactive and in a perfect world we would be, (but) that’s why we look to the community to be proactive.”
Gay said watch groups are a tool for police because residents observe things that police may not, such as increased traffic to a residence, which may be a sign of drug activity, illegal gun activity, or they may hear things on the streets that police may not. And with their reports they can begin the various investigations.
“With the (use) of silent complaint forms, the Mayor’s 311 line and 911, people are starting to feel more confident (in reporting). People can remain anonymous,” Gay said.
In his area alone, which includes Lincoln-Lemington, East Hills, Homewood, East Liberty and Stanton Heights among others, there are more than 50-60 block watch programs.
Like Gay, Penn Hills Police Detective Bill Troger agreed that neighborhood watches are important to police. “Penn Hills is a large community, the second largest in Allegheny County, with our limited resources we cannot be in the community the way we’d like to. We have five to nine officers on a shift at a time, neighborhood captains know their neighborhood, they monitor activity and notice things that we may not always catch.”
He said not only do members of watch groups help officers, but so do the meetings. He said meetings allow information that may not be properly communicated due to media or, mostly, word of mouth. He gave the example of how there was a sexual abuse incident within a home and, because of miscommunication, residents thought a predator was lurking around the neighborhood, which was not the case. Through the meetings he was able to set the record straight.
Due to budget cuts the position of Crime Prevention Officer, which works with the Penn Hills block groups, was cut and the duties were given to Troger, along with his other duties. He said although he cannot commit as much time as he would like to he is committed to the community.
Along with Penn Hills, Wilkinsburg has had an active neighborhood watch program. Wilkinsburg Police Chief Ophelia Coleman said they recently had several more blocks begin watch programs.
Detective Mike Adams, Wilkinsburg Police, said its nice to know that residents are watching their neighborhoods and that residents do not always report incidents to police, but do to watch captains, and if the members feel it is critical or something officers need to know, then they present it to the police.
For more than 40 years the Operation Better Block Inc. in Homewood-Brushton has worked with neighborhood block groups and residents to address crime in their neighborhoods. Jose Diaz, senior community organizer, said, “We encourage all residents to be active in public safety and its like.” He added that people have expressed an interest in starting new or reinventing previously existing block groups.
Diaz said the challenge his organization has been facing is trying to engage younger and more diverse faces. He said they see a lot of the same faces and many of them are older.
When it comes to the “no snitching” street code, several officers said they do not believe that it has an effect on residents reporting issues.
“I do not think it applies to those in the community. The ‘no snitching’ rule only applies to those in gangs (criminal activity). It is only 5 percent of the community that is a problem,” said Gay. He said it is rare to see an intimidation factor for people not involved in criminal activity.
“It is not snitching if you are protecting your community,” said Adams.
But while officers say they do not think the street rule plays a role, Diaz said he thinks it does and that he has been told that residents are afraid to report things due to a fear of retaliation or “street justice.” He also added that there is concern of a lack of communication or partnership between residents and the police. And he understands that police may feel the same.
But one thing that each agrees on is that in order for watch programs and crime to decrease, a strong relationship between residents of the community and the police is critical.