Crowd voices crime concerns

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, July 24, 2002

Austin residents filled the city council chambers Tuesday in search of ways to make their neighborhoods safer.

The meeting was scheduled before the incidents of gang violence occurred in Austin last week, but there's little doubt more people came, interested in starting neighborhood watch programs because of the recent spike in crime.

Mickey Jorgenson, chair of the Community Relations Committee, which sponsored the meeting, told audience members the neighborhood watch is not just about forming a group of people to watch for crime in town, but it also helps promote a sense of community and helps people get to know their neighbors better.

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"The program was started in 1998 and since then, we have struggled to build five neighborhood watches. The purpose of the program is not to create vigilantism, but to be the eyes and ears of the police department," Austin Police Chief Paul Philipp said. "It's to report crime, to be on the lookout for crime, to be on the lookout for the safety of your neighbors."

However, one of the problems with the neighborhood watch, Officer Steve Wald, who is in charge of the program, said, is that "it's been real difficult to keep groups going. It seems as if once the problem goes away, the block watch stops and that's not what we want."

Those who were a part of neighborhood watches told the audience they had nothing but success with their programs. Vaughn Bothun, of Austin, said a group had formed in his neighborhood a few months ago because "we knew of five drug houses. By watching those houses and by taking down license plate numbers, we're happy to say that by the end of the month, we're expecting to get rid of three of them."

"People are afraid to speak to police because they don't know what's going to happen to them," said Penny Nolta, of Austin.

Leslie Meyer, of Austin, said the first neighborhood watch in the city was formed in her neighborhood because of a drug problem in the area. "People knew we were watching, but they didn't know who was turning in their license plate numbers. They just knew the neighborhood was getting 'hot' and they left," she explained.

Some in the audience wondered how to treat the people who are causing problems in the neighborhood when forming a watch group. Wald said even those people should be asked to join the watch program. "Invite them. You're not targeting one group of people, you're targeting behavior," he said.

Many said they are frustrated and angry with increase in crime over the past few years in Austin and are afraid to go out alone or let their children go out in town. Though they voiced a desire for more police officers, Dick Chaffee, council member-at-large, told them the city "cannot afford to put a police officer on every block."

"Times change. We have more crime than we did three or four years ago, but we also have 29 police officers for 23,000 people, which is more than the state average of one per 1,000," Dick Lang, 3rd Ward council member said. "But that's why the community watch is so important now. The town has changed. It's not just drugs. There are bikes being stolen and boat motors being stolen."

"Don't sit on your rump and not do anything. You have to do something. I've counted about 80 people here. If you go out and recruit 4 people, you'll have 320 people. Then, if you do it in another month or two, you'll have about 1,200. You have to do something," Lon Krueger, of Austin said.

Amanda L. Rohde can be reached at 434-2214 or by e-mail at