Neighbors claim watch groups paying dividends

They’re extra eyes and ears for the Williamsport Bureau of Police.

Neighborhood watch groups, now 15 strong throughout the city, are helping to provide tips leading to arrests, according to several group coordinators and Mayor Gabriel J. Campana.

“I would say definitely there’s been a difference,” said Joel Henderson, a coordinator for the Vallamont Neighborhood Watch Group, monitoring Elmira and Cherry streets and Brandon and Glenwood avenues.

As a pastor of Trinity Gospel Church, 1010 Elmira St., Henderson said he has been coordinating for three years and has seen success and neighborhood improvement.

“As a group, we have had a hand in several arrests,” he said. “On top of that, our neighborhood has come together and gotten to know each other. I think we’re closer as neighbors.”

Being more conscious of one another as neighbors is one of the unintentioned benefits, he said. “We’re not so focused as individuals, but moreso of helping the community around us.”

Campana said the groups operate best when they are autonomous, not having a singular coordinator overseeing them.

“They don’t want to be under one coordinator,” Campana said. “They don’t want someone telling them how to run their watch programs.”

Henderson is among a growing force of citizens who are writing down unfamiliar license plate numbers and providing tips and pertinent information.

City Police Lt. Brian Womer, a daylight watch commander at City Hall, said police welcome tips from citizens but he added the best course of action citizens can take whenever they see any suspicious activities is to contact 911 immediately.

“Don’t wait,” he said, saying descriptions of vehicles and individuals and direction of travel helps.

District Attorney Eric R. Linhardt said the groups unite law enforcement agencies and citizens in an effort to reduce crime and improve local communities.

The groups are now incorporating activities that not only address crime prevention issues, but also restore pride and unity to their neighborhood, Linhardt said.

And the amount of groups is expected to grow by year’s end, according to Jeff Reeder, chairman of a group monitoring Brandon Park and surrounding streets.

Reeder, who serves as president of the city’s Citizen Corps Council, which reports activities to the city Public Safety committee, said criminals are aware people are watching.

Reeder’s group looks after the folks living in and around Market to Franklin streets and Washington Boulevard to Eldred Street.

Members, he said, gather on the first Thursday of each month during nicer weather at the Brandon Park bandshell.

“In my neighborhood, it works,” said Cassie Carpenter, who said she joined after tiring of watching drug addicts shooting up heroin in vehicles parked on the block of Park Avenue near Campbell Street.

After a lull in the group’s activity, Carpenter said she wants to restart efforts, especially now after reading about drug transactions picking back up in the city and county.

“After we started it six years ago, things settled down in my neighborhood,” she said.

She claimed a house used for prostitution was stopped by the watch group efforts.

“It was pretty horrible a couple of years ago and now it’s back again with a couple of drug houses in the neighborhood,” she said.

Carpenter said she believes anytime calls are placed to police they have had a positive impact.

“Neighbors helping each other and reporting suspicious activities to police works,” she said. “They are all trying and they have come a long way in the last couple of years.”

Jane Dirk, 66, of Tucker Street agreed.

“Our presence since 1993 has made an impact,” she said.

Dirk said about 20 of her neighbors gather at a nearby church several times a year.

“We’ve had good talks,” she said.

Maynard “JR” Homler, who has been Scott Street Neighborhood Watch coordinator for six years, said he started his efforts after a fatal shooting in a house on the block just to the west of his home. It was within eyesight of his front porch and the same location where another fatal shooting occurred July 20.

“We started it because of that and the neighbors – who from one end of the street to the other and several blocks around – were upset,” he said. “They asked, ‘Can we get a watch started?'”

Since about 2007, Homler said he has acted as a go-between for residents and the police, but will take information from others than those living on the street.

“For the people who’ve hung on, we keep in touch,” Homler said.

As for the impact of the group, Homler said when arrests take place, it’s all worth it.

For Sally Wiegand, 78, her devotion to her Louisa Street neighborhood remains “a labor of love.”

Her efforts include working with neighbors along parts of Hepburn and Elmira streets and Rural Avenue.

Wiegand said she started many of the initial watch groups and for the past eight years continues to take on that role, providing her assistance.

“In my neighborhood it has worked wonders,” she said. “I decided I was tired of seeing drugs going down to kids in the area and thought it was time to sit up and pay attention to what was happening.”

Wiegand said she has been thrilled to have helped police to get a drug house closed and read the accounts of the individual eventually sent to prison.

“I have seen cars taken off the street and impounded,” she said.

But she, too, worries about apathy among residents.

“Six of the watch groups listed for the committee have become inactive,” she said. “I started seven of the neighborhood watches,” she said. “Three of those have become inactive.”

Still, Wiegand retains hope after being contacted by people who want to form a new group.

“I have more people coming to me asking how to start a watch in their neighborhood,” she said.

“People have a habit of being apathetic until it hits close to home,” said Phil Preziosi, a former city and retired police officer. He welcomes taking on the role as watch coordinator in his Newberry neighborhood, reporting activities to police.

“We need them (residents) to step up to the plate, trust the authorities and develop leads that can make inroads and thwart the crime we’re having now,” he said.