Like many people, Fairfax County resident Norman Cherkis spent the last week of July using his car for errands, such as taking his dog to the groomer and stopping by Home Depot.
But unlike most of us, he also spent about 10 hours in his vehicle with his wife, Beverly, for another purpose: driving around his neighborhood and the nearby shopping center, library and elementary school in search of "anything out of the ordinary," such as a U-Haul parked in the driveway of a vacationing homeowner, he said. He did so as a member of the Rose Hill Neighborhood Watch Team, a group of about 50 residents who work to deter crime in their community of 700 homes by looking out for each other's property and maintaining regular contact with the Fairfax County police.
Rose Hill is one of an estimated 18,000 Neighborhood Watch communities in the United States, said Chris Tutko, director of Neighborhood Watch Programs for the Alexandria-based National Sheriffs' Association, a nonprofit group that has provided resources for Neighborhood Watch groups since 1972.
Names vary -- the operations also can be called Crime Watch, Community Watch, Apartment Watch, Town Watch or Orange-Hat Patrols. The underlying concept, however, is similar. "It's a structured way of protecting a neighborhood" through a citizen-run community crime prevention program, Tutko said. The programs, typically administered at the local level by police or sheriffs' departments, have grown to include terrorism prevention.
Heather Hurlock, a crime prevention specialist with the Arlington County police said: "Without question it's the old-fashioned know-your-neighbor program."
Or, to phrase it more poetically: "It's a beautiful information sharing tree in the community" between citizens and the police, said Philip Edwards, a Fairfax County police officer based at the Franconia District Station. This summer, for example, theft from sheds has been a problem in parts of Fairfax County, Edwards said. Police have notified Neighborhood Watch communities to be on the lookout.
Having an electronic security system and good locks in your home does not eliminate the need for a community-wide crime prevention program, said Bruce Lohr, a retired police officer and crime prevention specialist with the Sykesville-based Maryland Community Crime Prevention Institute, a state agency. Rather, those tools work together with Neighborhood Watch. "The more security you have, the better off you are," he said.
Some Neighborhood Watch groups have block captains and formal meetings with police, while others are more informal. Some involve active mobile watch teams where residents patrol streets as they do in Rose Hill, while others merely involve people looking out their windows for unusual activities. Some post street signs at entrances to the community or stickers in residents' windows saying something to the effect of "this neighborhood is under watch," while others pass around an engraver from neighbor to neighbor to inscribe drivers' license numbers on items that might be stolen.
Edwards emphasizes that citizens are not supposed to act when they notice suspicious activity but rather to be the "eyes and ears" of the police, a phrase commonly used when describing Neighborhood Watch groups.
What constitutes "suspicious activity"?
"It can range from a stray dog to a car parked in the same place for two to three weeks," said Terri Alexander, a sergeant with the District's Metropolitan Police Department. And just about anything in between, including a person shouting for help or asking strange questions, someone loitering in or trespassing through back yards, a car with out-of-state tags driving around, or an individual or group scrawling graffiti or vandalizing houses, mailboxes or common areas.
Since Sept. 11, 2001, the National Sheriffs' Association has attempted to broaden the Neighborhood Watch program beyond crime prevention to address some homeland security issues, including emergency preparedness, terrorism awareness and community response, said Robbi Woodson, assistant program manager at the association.
For residents of a watch neighborhood, the impact is primarily an expansion of the types of suspicious activity to be mindful of. For example, the Rose Hill neighborhood sits near an electric power station, yet all the residents have gas heat, Cherkis said. So if he were to see an oil tanker truck sitting near the power station, he would alert authorities.
"People who commit acts of terror don't just say on a Monday 'I'll go blow up the Pentagon,' " said Edwards, adding, "There's an awful lot of planning, surveillance and practice beforehand" that residents can watch out for.
Communities usually initiate a Neighborhood Watch program when residents are concerned about a particular type of crime. That was the case in Silver Spring's Tanglewood neighborhood. The program started in 1994, when "we were losing a car about every 11 days due to break-ins," said Dave Evans, director of the Tanglewood Neighborhood Watch Program. "We got a bunch of people together and said, 'We have to stop it, let's organize,' " he recalled.
Since then, teams of two neighbors have patrolled the streets, pool area and basketball courts for at least two hours a night, four days a week, mostly by car. Teams carry a kit containing flashlights, a neighborhood directory and map, emergency contact information, road flares, night vision binoculars, and a yellow revolving light that can be placed on top of a car. In addition, the community has a designated Neighborhood Watch phone line for residents to call to volunteer or to report a problem.
Over the past 11 years, about seven people have been arrested based on residents' calls to the police about suspicious activities. Many would-be criminals have left the scene of a potential break-in or vandalism upon seeing the mobile watch teams, Evans said. In addition, patrols have notified many residents that their garage doors were open or that the lights were on in their cars. "The program has definitely worked," said Evans, noting that there are currently no more than two car thefts per year in Tanglewood.
When criminal activity in a neighborhood wanes, it doesn't mean a Neighborhood Watch is no longer necessary, said Edwards of the Fairfax County Police Department. "People say, 'Why are we doing it if there's no crime?' But I tell them there's no crime because you're doing this."
Cherkis agrees. In part because of citizen efforts, crime is minimal in his Rose Hill neighborhood, he said. "People know that if they do something wrong they will be watched, so they choose to do it somewhere else."
But there are other reasons to keep up a crime prevention program even when crime is negligible. For one thing, it may increase home values in the neighborhood as more people choose to live there. "We have had people renting and they decided to buy here because of the Neighborhood Watch program," said Evans of Tanglewood.
For another, Neighborhood Watch programs can promote communication. "Neighborhood Watch is a really good way to meet and greet neighbors in today's society," said Joy Patil, a Montgomery County police officer at the 3rd District (Silver Spring) Station.
Just ask Cherkis. Many of his neighbors work for the military and therefore "don't normally get involved" in neighborhood activities "because they aren't going to be there long," he said. But when they see him patrolling in his car and volunteering to help keep the area safer, they start up conversations.
"People become a whole lot more friendly when they know you're with Neighborhood Watch," he said.