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Groups aim to keep eyes on neighborhoods

Published: Tuesday, Sept. 3, 2013 5:30 a.m. CDT

Nothing has done more damage to Neighborhood Watch’s image than a group leader in Florida pursuing and eventually killing an unarmed teen, those involved with the crime prevention organization say.

The death of Trayvon Martin and eventual acquittal of George Zimmerman served as a lesson to Neighborhood Watch members not to take law enforcement matters into their own hands. Rather, they should serve as “eyes and ears” for police.

“It’s not a mini police department,” said Deputy Aimee Knop, who serves as a liaison for the McHenry County Sheriff’s Office programs. “These are educated citizens who work together to watch out for each other and communicate with police when there’s a concern.”

USA on Watch, the organization that provides information for local Neighborhood Watch programs, indicates there is at least one program in almost every town in McHenry County.

The programs are administered through local police jurisdictions. Police have little authority on how groups are run, but provide resources and education to Neighborhood Watch members.

For example, the Sheriff’s Office guides groups in unincorporated Marengo and Union that host regular events and informational seminars. Topics generally include safety or crime prevention.

Anitra Willis leads a group that spans 2 square miles in rural unincorporated Union. To her, Neighborhood Watch is so much more than a crime prevention organization – it is a throwback to a different era, one where neighbors frequently socialize, but more importantly, have each other’s backs.

“We’re just neighbors learning how to be safer out there,” Willis said. “And being more aware of what’s out there in the neighborhood.”

Though USA on Watch touts several studies showing the benefits Neighborhood Watch has in crime reduction, authorities know that locally, oftentimes these successes aren’t always tangible.

“You cannot measure what does not happen,” Knop said. “Crime prevention is hard to gauge.”

But by providing the groups with education and tools to actively take notice of their surroundings, there is a benefit for both local law enforcement and residents.

“Because they’re more educated, they can report better information to dispatchers,” Knop said, adding that with an open communication pathway, members are more comfortable dealing with law enforcement.

Those interested in starting a Neighborhood Watch group should contact their local police jurisdiction.

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