‘Watching’ is only part of the job

From left, Becky O’Connor, Peter Milton and Reed Bornholdt sand next to one of the many signs in Richfield announcing the presence of a neighborhood watch. (Photo by Nick Van Heest – Sun Intern)

By Nick Van Heest – Sun Intern

Suspicious activity is not tolerated in Reed Bornholdt’s Richfield neighborhood.

“We all keep an eye out for each other,” said Bornholdt, who has been block captain on the 7300 Block of Harriet Avenue for four years. “Being part of a neighborhood watch really forces you to get to know your neighbors.”

But for neighborhood watch participants, watching and socializing is only the beginning of their efforts to make their neighborhoods safer places to live.

Just over half — 256 — of Richfield’s blocks actively participate in the Richfield Public Safety Department’s Neighborhood Crime Watch Program, according to Crime Prevention Specialist Jill Mecklenburg. Block captains, serving as liaisons between their neighborhoods and police, work to help improve the relationship between residents and law enforcement while fostering a tighter-knit community.

And sometimes, neighborhood watch participants get to play a direct role in catching the bad guys.

Crime Prevention Officer Dave Franke mentioned a case from about five years ago of a man convicted six times for burglary who moved to Richfield from Arizona. Within six months, there was a rash of burglaries in the immediate area, so the police went to the neighborhood watches and told them to report anything suspicious.

“A woman called in to say she saw a man who fit the description behind a house with a pillowcase full of something,” Franke said. “I got a search warrant for that house, kicked in the door and solved 33 burglaries, just because neighbors got involved.”

To get involved, neighborhoods can sign up on the police department’s website to receive city crime alerts and check out an interactive crime map. In efforts to foster neighborhood cohesion, captains distribute newsletters to neighbors and host “Night to Unite,” an annual block party.

The importance of such coordination becomes most apparent during the tensest times, like the hostage situation Bornholdt recalls happening at the end of his block two years ago. As block captain, it was his responsibility to go door-to-door, telling the neighbors to stay inside during the standoff between the gunman and the police. The situation was eventually defused and no one was hurt.

Becky O’Connor, who has captained the 7200 Block of Oliver Avenue for more than 20 years, remembered her neighborhood coming together when a sex offender convicted for kidnapping women moved onto her block.

“The police department held a meeting on how we can be nice yet watchful,” O’Connor said.

She also recalled a more benign, albeit annoying situation in which communication was key. About 10 years ago, a teenage neighbor enjoyed loudly playing basketball in the street at 3 a.m., and always seemed to know when the police were coming, able to run back inside before they arrived. The issue was finally resolved after Mecklenburg spoke with the boy’s father.

Neighborhood watch can also simply work toward making the community a friendlier place.

“At one ‘Night to Unite,’ we had a neighbor who was a blind musician come and play music,” Bornholdt said. “Lots of people from the surrounding blocks stopped by to watch.”

Peter Milton, who has captained the 6700 Block of 16th Avenue for 11 years, enjoys getting to know the Hispanic families who live on his block at “Night to Unite.”

“My family benefits from learning about their culture,” Milton said.

Bornholdt, Milton and O’Connor all spoke positively about their experiences as block captains, and were enthusiastic to get the word out on the benefits of the Neighborhood Crime Watch Program.

When asked why she signed up to be a block captain back in the 1980s, O’Connor said, “It just sounded like a good idea.”

To schedule an initial Neighborhood Crime Watch meeting for your block, call the Richfield Police Crime Prevention Unit, Monday through Friday, 7:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m., at 612-861-9845.