Vandalism spree spurs vigilance in Northwest neighborhood

Residents patrol as members of Neighbors on Watch program

By Tyler Graf, Columbian county government reporter

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Neighbors on Patrol

The Neighbors on Patrol program started in 2008 in the Hough neighborhood. Intended to curb crime by training people how to patrol the streets and report suspicious activity, it met with early success. In its first 30 days, crime reports in Hough dropped in half, said Kelly Cheney, volunteer coordinator for the Vancouver City Council. "We knew right away that we had a very successful idea," she said.

People interested in joining the program can call Cheney at 360-487-7467. Before joining the program, people must pass a seven-week class. The classes are held twice a year, in fall and spring.

Whether on foot or by car, there are residents of Vancouver's Northwest neighborhood who are doing their part to stamp out crime following a vandalism spree at the beginning of the year.

They're joining the ranks of a growing program in Vancouver and greater Clark County called Neighbors on Watch, which puts volunteers on the streets to act as extra eyes and ears for police.

Residents of the neighborhood say they've perceived an uptick in vandalism and other crimes in recent years. They point to a spate of incidents — broken windows, damaged buildings — earlier in the year as a call to action. During one spree, vandals wielding heavy objects clobbered businesses and homes in the Lincoln and Northwest neighborhoods.

"The tipping point for us was what happened to Latte Da, which was vandalized (this) year," said NOW volunteer and Northwest resident Lia Hollander, as she started a patrol from outside the coffee shop. "That was sort of the call to action to do something. There was video of it, and that was just deeply disturbing because it was some teenage kids who did it."

In June, she and fellow Northwest resident Jim Mains graduated from the city's seven-week training program for Neighbors on Watch, becoming part of the newest crop of NOW volunteers — and the only ones from Northwest. By the end of the year, the Vancouver Police Department says there will be roughly 130 volunteers patrolling the city.

Clad in uniforms of neon-green vests, maroon shirts and beige hats, Hollander and Mains patrol their neighborhood, radios in hand, looking for anything out of the ordinary. When they see something — a broken window, an ajar door — they call another volunteer working out of a house, who makes a note of what's reported and, if it's pressing, notifies the police. Some volunteers forgo foot patrols for vehicles to cover more ground.

Either way, there's no shortage of activity, volunteers say.

Living near the Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church, a regular target of vandals, Mains said witnessing the amount of nighttime commotion in his seemingly quiet neighborhood was eye-opening.

"I didn't realize just how much activity goes on at night, especially around the church," Mains said. "I'll call the police maybe monthly for some kind of incident, like people trying to vandalize the doors or break in. Sometimes I'll yell at them, but I don't like to get involved directly."

Program volunteers say a watchful eye is all they need to curb crime. Mains points to one Sunday after Mass when he saw a woman take a metal "Do not enter" sign from outside the Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church. Wearing a hard hat and carrying wire cutters, the woman looked official. But Mains had a feeling she was out of place.

He alerted authorities at the church, who tracked down the sign, which had been discarded in some bushes at Northwest 46th Street. He speculated the woman was stashing the sign so she could salvage it later.

Northwest neighborhood residents say they applaud the volunteers' efforts.

As the NOW foot patrol scoured the Northwest neighborhood on a drizzly September afternoon, one resident, Jake Russell, walked from his driveway toward the volunteers to discuss the problems he'd had with vandals at his girlfriend's house.

"Graffiti is my main issue," he said, pointing to a vinyl fence encircling the house. "We get tagged all the time."

The problem became so bad he set up cameras around the perimeter of the house to catch the culprits. While graffiti outside the house has all but disappeared since he installed cameras, it continues to cover walls and storage sheds down nearby alleyways.

Extra patrols are appreciated, he said.

Observe and report

While so-called "neighborhood watch" programs are sometimes accused of promoting — the notion being that volunteers take the law into their own hands — the city says its program is different.

"Death Wish" this is not.

Kelly Cheney, volunteer coordinator for the Vancouver Police Department, said police never refer to the program as a "neighborhood watch." While it may sound like branding, volunteers say it's easy to understand why it exists. Since the program began with 16 volunteers in 2008, Vancouver and county law enforcement officials have been careful to provide top-down oversight.

Still, it's hard to quash the notion that a "neighborhood watch" program only attracts self-fashioned Charles Bronsons. The trial of George Zimmerman, the Florida neighborhood watch coordinator charged with last year's murder of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, galvanized public opinion nationwide earlier in the year and cast a harsh light on volunteer-based policing. The trial — Zimmerman was found not guilty — was ongoing while the NOW volunteers took their classes last spring and summer.

But Mains said news from the trial underscored the differences between Zimmerman's program and Neighbors on Watch. For one, he said, Neighbors on Watch volunteers are trained to "observe and report." They're not allowed to carry weapons.

"The first thought I had was, 'He had a gun?'" Mains said, reflecting on his reaction to the Zimmerman trial. "I felt like it wasn't a true neighborhood watch program."

Even though volunteers are not allowed to directly engage people suspected of criminal activity, they can do their part in other ways. They can cover more ground than the police when there are reports of stolen goods, and the police department attributes the recovery of 74 stolen vehicles to Neighbors on Watch.

Patrol volunteers also provide surveillance assistance during large gatherings and festivals.

In the Northwest neighborhood, patrol volunteers say they plan to continue beating the pavement to stop criminal activity before it happens. After all, the police can't be everywhere at once, volunteers say.