While other happily married Potomac residents watch the late TV news weeknights at 11 p.m., Richard Hess, in a state of heightened awareness, steps out of his six-bedroom house with his poodle Bentley and goes poking around his Bedfordshire neighborhood.
"I'm not a snoop," said the 38-year-old women's clothing salesman and father of two. "But when it comes to this kind of stuff I care."
Hess' nightly patrol around a block of expensive homes in this north Potomac residential area is part of an extensive crime-curbing effort by citizens that Montgomery County police credit with reducing burglaries 13 percent in the Bethesda police district where the drive is concentrated. The decrease, attributed to public participation in the department's Neighborhood Watch program, has been recorded at a time when burglary -- the most frequent major crime in the county -- is up 9 percent countywide.
Police in the department's crime prevention section consider the Bedforshire program exemplary because interest has not waned with the drop in burglaries.
What galvanized this community's 900 residents last January was a spate of 11 burglaries in three months. Thieves carried off silverware, stereos and money.
"People were panicking," Hess recalled. "I was so paranoid I had to do something to stop it. I couldn't live like that."
Hess became one of the community's 62 block captains -- people who organize meetings with their neighbors and the police. Some neighbors met for the first time. Phone numbers were exchanged. The residents learned how to pin their windows shut and fortify doors with dead bolts.
Most of all they learned to be alert. "We opened our eyes," Hess said. "We became aware of our problems as a neighborhood. Now when I go by a window I glance out. It's just a quick check. I don't stand there with binoculars."
Block captains are regularly contacted by the officers on their beat and who tell the community leaders what is going on in the neighborhood and what to look out for.
A strange car parked near the woods, for example, would prompt a call from Hess to a neighbor. If no one could identify it, he would jot down the license plate number and dial 911. Although he has flagged down neighborhood speeders, he doesn't try to detain suspicious persons and does not carry a weapon. Nor is his dog trained for police work.
But the new vigilance of Hess and other Bedfordshire residents has changed the community from what police call a hot burglary area to a quiet one.
"I can't remember a burglary since January," Hess says. Police count only seven this year in an area that encompasses Bedfordshire and four other communities.
Results also have been dramatic in Olney Mill, where all crime is down at least 50 percent from last year, police said.
More than 500 block captains have organized watch groups in the two years since the police program began.
"People are seeing things instead of looking and not seeing," said Capt. Ralph W. Robertson, Bethesda district commander. "Police have only so many eyes. The more eyes looking for suspicious activity, the better off we'll be."
But the program has had only sporadic success in the Rockville, Silver Spring and Wheaton districts of the county, where burglaries are up as much as 28 percent. "A neighborhood identity is very important," said Lt. Joseph R. Hancock, head of the department's crime prevention section. "In communities like Silver Spring, where there's a large percentage of apartments, there's so much mobility it's difficult to have the community concern that could make this work."
For the beat officers who patrol Bedfordshire's placid-looking streets, the new role of the citizen in law enforcement has altered some routines.
"It's twice as much work for me," said Officer Alfonse Augustine. "Suspicious calls are up 90 percent a night. And people trust me more. I know people by their names."
Augustine said residents of neighborhood watch communities have to restain their zeal to report suspicious activities. "You don't want 'I Spy' on your neighbor," he said. "You don't want to report some guy who's just walking his dog."