A Capitol Hill housewife who has never fired a gun used her telephone to help apprehend three youths she spotted climbing over her neighbor's fence.
A Southeast woman who spends much of her time organizing church activities also organized her neighbors to patrol the streets near their apartments and report suspicious happenings to 7th District police.
A systems analyst, who spends his days doing computer runs, spends his evenings running an organization of nearly a thousand Northwest homes as part of a citizen self-help crime prevention project.
All three are part of the city-wide Neighborhood Watch. The program aims to increase citizen awareness of crime and organize neighbors to watch out for each other's property and report suspicious activity to police. The program also encourages home security inspections and the indelible identification marking of personal property by police.
Although the Mayor's Advisory Council officially began the D.C. Neighborhood Watch program about a year ago, the program was instituted nationwide in 1972 by the National Sheriff's Association. The association created the distinctive orange, black and white logo that is displayed on brochures and decals pasted on street signs in neighborhoods where the program is in effect.
Locally, the program is coordinated through a police representative and citizen chairpersons, area coordinators and block captains and has met with mixed success.
The Neighborhood Watch program that started last October in the 400 block of Kentucky Avenue SE paid its first dividends last month when an observant woman helped police catch three youths who were breaking into her neighbor's house.
The youths were observed by a 35-year-old housewife who serves as the program's block captain.
"The kids were coming up and pointing to the house," the woman explained. "They knocked on the door and when nobody answered they went around to the back alley."
The woman, who asked to remain anonymous, then called police, and for nearly half an hour transmitted information about where the youths were.
"The police arrived within two minutes and the kids started to scatter," she said. "The 18-year-old got away and the 15-year-old ran across to the Safeway where the police caught him. The third kid came into my backyard and I followed him into the alley and then told the police where to get him and they did."
As a result of her efforts, 1st District police Sgt. William McManus nominated the woman for the mayor's Meritorious Service Award.
Members of the Kentucky Avenue crime watch hope to aid police further by putting their addresses on their back alley fences and using floodlights there to make house identification easier, she said.
One reason for the neighbors' enthusiastic participation may be pride in their earlier accomplishments. Most recently they succeeded in limiting the number of liquor stores in their vicinity. Their Advisory Neighborhood Commission is now making the crime watch program one of its priorities.
In Southeast's Naylor Gardens, elderly residents concerned about a series of burglaries and other crimes in their apartment buildings met for the first time last spring to organize a Watch program.
Ruby Ancher organized that first meeting. She said police officers showed residents how the thieves were getting in by climbing into hallway trapdoors on the buildings' top floors and then boring holes into the apartments' ceilings to gain access. Residents were able to thwart the burglars by putting locks on the trap doors, she said.
"We agreed that groups of three people would patrol the area with whistles and walkie-talkies so we could alert the rental office, and they'd call the police if we saw anything suspicious," she said. "Many of the walkers were in their eighties and one was 85."
They walked mornings from 8 to 10 o'clock and in the afternoon, when school let out, from about 3 to 5.
They walked through the spring, summer, and into the fall, but by November they had stopped.
"It just sort of petered out," said Ancher. "Actually, the program had problems from the start. We only bought one walkie-talkie and it wasn't strong enough to reach the receiving station, so we never use it. We just walked.
"The idea is good but it hasn't worked out," she said. "There's not enough cooperation. People don't want to get involved. The police are happy to have us help ourselves but that's the end of it. They don't come immediately when you call them."
Even so, Ancher said, she thinks that "just being visible helped," and she is considering revitalizing the group once the weather warms up.
Perhaps the most ambitious anticrime program is the Friendship-Tenleytown Neighborhood Watch in upper Northwest, where residents of nearly a thousand homes have become involved.
Stephen Ayres helped organize the program. He called the National Sheriff's Association for literature after he recalled seeing their Neighborhood Watch logo near his parents' home in New London, Conn.
Ayres said police participation in the program was what first appealed to him: "We didn't want to be vigilantes. We pay a lot of taxes and [the police] should do their job."
Ayres became the program chairman, helping block captains organize each block.
To further legitimize the program, Ayres sought support from the Friendship-Tenleytown Citizens Association, which he said was "pleased with the idea since it was the kind of work they wanted to do." He became the liaison to the organization.
Ayres next appealed to local businesses for financial help to purchase brochures and decals through the National Sheriff's Association. They gave him $500.
The Neighborhood Watch signs were bought with funds from the District's Department of Transportation. Right now, though, there's a shortage of signs because "people are stealing them," he said.
Ayres said it's difficult to measure the program's effectiveness. He periodically gets a computer printout of crime statistics which indicate that residential burglaries have decreased on his block.
And despite citizen efforts to fight crime, Ayres said he is frustrated with the D.C. court system that makes pretrial release and probation easy for crime suspects to obtain. "A lot of the crime is being committed by the same people," he said.
Sgt. Dowling is unsure what contribution the program has made to decreasing crime rates. He said burglaries have "slowed down" in the 2nd District Crime Watch areas, but "street crime" rates are up nearly everywhere in the city.
It is interesting to note, he added, that Cumberland Street NW, which had no Neighborhood Watch sign, had more offenses recorded recently than did surrounding streets that did have the signs.
One of the important results of the program is that "people are getting involved and good communication is being established," he said. "I'm kind of amazed that it's continued to grow. We average about two meetings a week in the 2nd District."
Basically, the entire program depends on the interest of the residents. Said Dowling, "It's a neighbors' program. We give the information and basics to start with and they run with it."