Watching out for each other

Published 12:00 am Friday, September 27, 2002

A rainy evening did not stop residents in the northwest neighborhood from coming to a Neighborhood Watch picnic Thursday at Veterans Pavilion.

Close to 90 northwest residents showed up to raise concerns, learn more about the watch group or to just find out what's going on in their neighborhood.

The gathering was the first time all residents in the northwest area had been invited to form an "umbrella" watch group. Other smaller watch groups have been formed, but this larger one will make sure all residents on the northwest side of Austin are watching out for one another, said Sandy Anderson, co-director of the northwest neighborhood watch group.

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"We want to make sure people in the northwest neighborhood know what's going on in the whole area," Anderson said.

Over bratwursts and potato salad, residents discussed their concerns with one another.

"We've had vandalism at our home. We're interested to see if we can put a stop to it somehow," said Jan Mickelsen, who has lived in the northwest neighborhood for 28 years.

During the picnic, Vaughn "Spud" Bothun told residents that the watch group he started with other residents on 12th Street NW in June worked. A group of "skin heads" had moved in houses nearby and were dealing drugs, he said. Once the group began reporting suspicious activity, they eventually moved out, he said.

"We owe it to our children and grandchildren to get rid of this," Bothun said.

Bothun said there are other things that need to be done to prevent crime in Austin, but require city and county government help. He said Mower County needs a new, larger jail, another judge, more support staff for attorneys and more police officers. He said the number of police officers in Austin is below the state average and the crime rate in Austin is higher than in Rochester.

Anderson encouraged residents to become involved by looking out for their neighbors and reporting any suspicious activity. She also asked for volunteers to be "point houses" -- places where the watch group newsletter is dropped off to be distributed to the area around the point house.

Anderson also explained what a "hot spot" was, which was listed in the newsletter. "Hot spots" are where police have documented illegal activity occurring. Those spots are then put in the newsletter so that people are aware of them.

Sumner Elementary principal Kim Howard, along with three teachers, asked the residents for their help in catching people who have been vandalizing the school.

Howard said windows have been broken, graffiti has been sprayed on the building, people have urinated in the corners, broken glass has been found in the playground area and chewing tobacco has been spit onto the windows. She asked that residents living near the school report any suspicious behavior.

Sumner fourth grade teacher Dave Brown lives in the northwest neighborhood and said he stopped taking his 3-year-old daughter to Sumner's playground because of the broken glass and debris found around the equipment. He also is concerned for the students.

"As a teacher at Sumner, I want students to be able to have fun, to be safe," he said.

Dave White, a member of the 12th Street watch group, said some have been reluctant to get involved out of fear of retaliation, but he said they shouldn't worry.

"It's not like you have to go out and confront people. That's not the issue here. It's just a phone call," he said.

Austin police officer Steven Wald, who has been helping neighborhoods set up watch groups for about five years, gave the group safety tips for Halloween.

Wald said Thursday's neighborhood watch gathering was the largest he had seen, although a southwest watch group meeting earlier in the year had attracted 70 households, he said. He said the number of watch groups in Austin are growing.

"Over that last year or so people have started to be more interested in it," he said, adding that eight have been formed.

Watching out for neighbors is nothing new for northwest residents Rosemarie Coffman, Donna Patten and Rosalie Morgan. They call their neighbors to warn them if something suspicious is happening and pay attention to motion lights when they go off at night. When an unfamiliar car has been sitting in the street for too long, they call the police.

"We watch each other," Coffman said.

Asked if they had been looking out for one another before the watch groups began forming, she responded, "Oh heavens! We've been doing that for years."

Cari Quam can be reached at 434-2235 or by e-mail at