Last Updated: Aug 1st, 2014 - 15:09:46


Crimes boost interest in watch program
By Blake Belden, staff writer
Jul 31, 2014, 13:41

BLAKE BELDEN/HOPEWELL NEWS/NEWS-PATRIOT A neighborhood watch interest meeting drew about 100 people at Lakeview Elementary.
COLONIAL HEIGHTS — Due to community concerns related to certain crime trends occurring in Colonial Heights recently, the police department has launched a citywide coordinated neighborhood watch program aimed to help report crimes and deter these crimes from continuing.

On Tuesday night, a public meeting was held at Lakeview Elementary School to initiate and recruit block captains for three neighborhood watch programs, of a total 10 so far, in Colonial Heights. Close to 100 residents filled the auditorium of the elementary school to take part in the meeting.

Sophie Benkendorf, the crime prevention officer for the Colonial Heights Police Department who will be overseeing the operations of the neighborhood watch programs, said that coordination between the community and law enforcement is critical to helping solve many crimes in the area.

“You  never know what that one piece of information that you’ve called in could change,” Benkendorf said. “It is amazing how little pieces of information can come together and solve things that are going on.”

The neighborhood watch programs will operate on a chain of command basis, where residents will report to block captains who are responsible for a street or segment of a neighborhood. Block captains will report to neighborhood coordinators who are responsible for a whole neighborhood or sector of the city. And the coordinators will directly report information to Benkendorf, who said she is currently working with 10 different neighborhood watch programs in Colonial Heights.

Although residents are to contact their block captains, the first call made for any suspicious or criminal activity must always be to the police, and the next call will be to the block captain at the next reasonable hour, Benkendorf said.

Benkendorf stressed that these watch programs are strictly information based, relying on residents reporting suspicious or criminal activity and nothing more.

“We need that information called into the police. If you guys want to walk your neighborhoods, fine, but we are not a vigilante neighborhood watch program. We do not want you to try to stop anything,” Benkendorf said.

Based on her former positions as a night shift officer and dispatcher, Benkendorf said that some people are afraid to make 911 calls on their neighbors, but that it is a necessity for residents to report suspicious activities.

“What is completely and 100 percent apparent to you standing in your house hiding behind the curtain at 3 a.m. is really hard for an officer riding down the road,” Benkendorf said, emphasizing that officers need to focus on several things at one time while driving down the street.

She also said that callers can maintain complete anonymity simply by telling the dispatcher they do not want to see an officer.

Through these programs, authorities hope to solve crimes more efficiently, distribute alerts and prepare crime prevention tips regularly for the community.

“Across all eligible studies combined, Neighborhood Watch was associated with a reduction in crime,” according to the  2008 Crime Prevention Research Review administered by the U.S. Department of Justice.

Donna Johnston, a neighborhood watch coordinator who lives on Franklin Avenue, said that she was prompted to volunteer for the position following two recent community shootings, one on Wakefield Avenue and one on the same street where she lives.

Johnston said she called Benkendorf the day after the shooting on Franklin Avenue, where a man was robbed at gunpoint early in the morning and then shot in the abdomen while he was lying on the ground, to sign up and help return her neighborhood to being a safe environment.

“I’d like to see this community like when I raised my children,” Johnston said, who will currently be overlooking more than 235 homes as part of her neighborhood watch role.

Johnston thinks the new watch program will work, and said that it is a good “way for people to look after each other.”

Tiffany Spence, another watch coordinator who lives on Woodlawn Avenue, said that “it’s scary” the number of crimes that have been going on recently just down the street from where she lives.

“I felt that as a citizen I need to take a stand ... so that we can keep an eye” on what’s going on in Colonial Heights, Spence said as to why she was compelled to become a coordinator.

Beth Knight lives on Virginia Avenue, and she decided to be the coordinator for the Violet Bank area because she wants to help make the community a safe place for her child to live and play in.

“If we can be just a little solution to the problem, then we need to take a stand for what we worked hard for,” Knight said, emphasizing that residents are responsible for creating their own neighborhoods.

People interested in participating in the neighborhood watch can contact the Colonial Heights Crime Prevention Officer at (804) 520-9318 or benkendorfs@colonialheightsva.gov.

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