It was an otherwise quiet night on Sonoma Trace in South Nashville when a neighbor heard something happening down the street. The neighbor looked out the window and saw four men breaking into a resident’s home.
“A neighborhood watch member saw it happening,” Don Johnson said. “[The police] were here immediately. They had these four mopes in handcuffs before they knew what hit them.”
Police were able to trace the burglars’ car. It came back stolen. Clues gathered from the arrest led to other suspects — and eventually more than 30 arrests were made, according to Johnson.
“That’s the power of the neighborhood watch,” Johnson said.
Johnson is in charge of the neighborhood watch group for the Oak Highlands/Deer Valley Homeowners Association. The group is part of a growing initiative by the Metro Nashville Police Department to reach out to the community to help fight crime.
The number of community groups in Nashville has increased from 475 in 2009 to 516 by the end of 2011. That trend will continue upward as several precincts, including South and Madison, have worked to form additional groups.
“We started seven new [watch groups] this year, just in 2012. To me, that’s huge,” South Precinct Commander Mike Alexander said. “Every group we form or have, that’s another set of eyes or ears that are saying, ‘We’re willing to work with you.’ ”
The increase in community groups has had a dramatic effect on crime in the South Precinct, in particular. Residential burglaries are down by 45 percent year-to-date over last year, according to Alexander.
“When we have community meetings, we talk about burglary prevention. We show videos about what to look for and what they can do to better safeguard themselves,” Alexander said. “Hopefully, we’re doing something to help the community to put themselves in a position to prevent a burglary from taking place.”
Johnson, a native Chicagoan and semi-retired national service manager, always had an interest in law enforcement. When a neighbor started a watch group for Oak Highlands due to high crime rates, Johnson signed up to be a block captain.
“What really got us involved in this was the gang influence that was coming into the neighborhood. It was getting out of control, and we said, ‘You know what? No. Not here. Not in this neighborhood,’ ” Johnson said. “We just put our collective feet down.”
Johnson eventually took over the group. He said he now sends out five or six emails on a slow day. All of them have the same tagline — “If you see something, say something” — followed by MNPD’s nonemergency hotline.
“The real power of this is the numbers we have here: 230 families signed up for neighborhood watch. We send them all the police reports, activity reports … it all goes out to everybody,” Johnson said. “We put out our own version of a BOLO (be on the lookout).”
The effort has paid off. In the past year, only nine crimes occurred in the neighborhood — a few acts of vandalism, domestic violence and car break-ins, according to MNPD’s crime map. By contrast, 25 crimes occurred on a single block of Cane Ridge Road roughly a mile away.
Johnson said it’s been more than two years since the last home break-in in his area.
The involvement of the neighborhood has also led to a close relationship with the police department — which Alexander said is a key component in the effectiveness of watch groups.
“It sends an important message to the criminal element: Look, it’s not just the police department that’s going to do our best to make sure you don’t take advantage of a law-abiding citizen,” Alexander said. “It’s the police department and several thousand members of the community that are willing to form one team to ensure that everyone stays safe.”
In addition to the neighborhood watch groups forming, police precincts are increasing the number of community meetings they attend. Police representatives were present at 1,430 community meetings in 2011. Those meetings range from watch groups to groups of downtown businesses.
“The officers are getting out of the cars and talking to people. It’s 100 times better to get out and talk to people,” Alexander said. “Just talking to families and mingling with kids and parents, that’s the very essence of community policing. It can’t be something we do once a month … that’s really got to be engrained day-to-day with the officers.”
In your neighborhood
Here are some tips for getting involved in a community watch group — or starting one:
• Find out which precinct your neighborhood is in. Contact the police department to see if there is a previously established neighborhood watch group.
• If there isn’t already a group, talk to neighbors who might be interested in starting one. “Typically, it’s kind of a grassroots effort … that’s how they get formed and started,” Alexander said.
• Keep these telephone numbers handy: Crime Stoppers, 74-CRIME; Crime Stoppers drug line, 244-DOPE; Crime Stoppers gang line, 862-GANG; MNPD’s nonemergency number, 862-8600.