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Frank Gray

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Rules key as citizens look after neighbors

In 1979, as was happening in communities across America, Fort Wayne residents came together to form what were commonly called neighborhood crime watches.

In Fort Wayne, the effort was dubbed the Concerned Citizen’s Watch Inc. Organizers hoped to get every neighborhood in the city involved.

Back then, being part of a watch group was cumbersome. There were no cellphones. If a citizen on patrol witnessed a crime, he had to find a pay phone to call police. Some watch members had CB radios, and they could contact a neighborhood CB radio base. The person running the radio base would then call police.

It was often time consuming, but that’s the way it worked.

The rules these watch groups followed, which police helped write, were stringent. Citizens were to serve only as eyes and ears for police. Volunteers had to undergo background checks. They were required to patrol in pairs. They were absolutely forbidden to carry firearms, and were to never confront anyone. That was the job of police.

Problems still arose, though. In one neighborhood, citizens who joined the watch were aggressive. They were stopping people coming home from work late at night and asking them what they were doing. In that case, according to people who founded the watch, an entire neighborhood was removed from the program and all the volunteers were dismissed.

Later, in another neighborhood, another volunteer who was being too aggressive and confronting people was kicked out of the program.

Since its inception 33 years ago, Concerned Citizen’s Watch in Fort Wayne has waxed and waned, depending on the amount of crime that might be occurring in a given neighborhood. Its existence has been quiet, though.

The last time the watch was even mentioned in the newspaper was 10 years ago.

Recently, a man who has been referred to as a self-appointed neighborhood watch captain in Florida killed an unarmed teenager.

In that case, the citizen watch volunteer broke several of the rules that are regarded as almost universal among neighborhood watches all over America. He was patrolling alone. He was carrying a gun. He chose to confront what he regarded as a suspicious person, even after calling police and being told by police to stay in his car and not get involved.

The killing has created a furor around the country, and it seems there are few people who don’t have an opinion about who was in the wrong.

The shooting in Florida comes at a time when there is an effort to revitalize Fort Wayne’s Concerned Citizen’s Watch.

Fort Wayne’s watch was established by people in their 30s and 40s. Today many of the original members are dead or retired. Some have moved away. Others quit because of their age, and some quit over conflicts with new members and efforts to change policies in the last few years.

Reg Converse is the current head of Concerned Citizen’s Watch and the person trying to revitalize the program. All of this comes at a time when it is difficult to find volunteers.

As Converse explains it, the entire concept of neighborhood watches has evolved since the days of CB radios. Citizens can use Twitter or email or Facebook to keep neighborhoods informed of what’s going on, and cellphones can be used to quickly notify police.

Volunteers don’t just patrol in cars, either. Citizens simply going for walks or riding their bikes around neighborhoods are asked to keep their eyes open. A person at home staring out of the window can play a role.

The rules, especially the ones concerning carrying firearms or confronting people, remain the same.

I asked Converse whether the Florida death could give neighborhood watches a black eye. No, he said, not to anyone who wants to know the truth about neighborhood watches.

In some ways, though, the Florida killing can serve to reinforce to volunteers the importance of those rules and illustrate that things can quickly go terribly wrong when the rules are abandoned.

Frank Gray reflects on his and others’ experiences in columns published Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday. He can be reached by phone at 461-8376, by fax at 461-8893, or by email at fgray@jg.net. You can also follow him on Twitter @FrankGrayJG.

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