Courts & Crime

Neighbors reclaim their turf from crooks and thugs

After thieves stole work tools from her boyfriend's truck last summer — and took property from her neighbors' vehicles — Robin Erickson decided to take back her Fair Oaks neighborhood.

"I was livid," Erickson said.

She and a neighbor across the street, Alicia Wuebker, printed out fliers asking if others were interested in forming a watch group, and distributed them to dozens of homes.

At their first meeting in late September, 60 people showed up, Erickson said. Now she and Wuebker are coordinators of a group with 30 households participating.

Throughout Sacramento County, neighborhood watch groups are popping up as residents close gaps from the perceived lack of a police presence, worsened by tight budgets.

Cathy Lane, interim president of the West Fair Oaks Neighborhood Watch Association, said residents see fewer deputies on the streets and feel less protected.

"People got nervous, and they start looking at neighborhood watch groups as resources," Lane said.

In the past few months, about four new groups – each with 12 to 15 households – have formed and joined her association, said Roger Berkenpas, the association's director of communications.

Residents living outside the group's coverage area also have sought help in starting their own groups.

Lane said attendance at the group's monthly meeting has increased recently, from 40 to 50 people.

Sheriff's officials say they haven't seen the extent of an increase in crime that residents are talking about, but encourage the volunteer trend.

"Even in the best of budget times, officers can't be on every street corner," said Cindy Burdette, a sheriff's crime prevention specialist for the Arden Arcade area. Burdette and her six counterparts in other areas help residents form watch groups.

Burdette said typically, three to six new groups form each month in her area.

"A lot of times it's people reacting to crime that has occurred in their neighborhood," Burdette said.

Erickson and Wuebker said they were relieved that a sheriff's crime prevention specialist, Sherrie Carhart, caught wind of their plans and offered to help.

"When we first started, I literally sat down and Googled how to (start a neighborhood watch group)," Wuebker said.

Their group doesn't have a name yet, but members are already reaping its benefits, the women said.

Soon after the first meeting, more residents installed lights in their yards. Someone called county officials to fix one of the few street lamps in their neighborhood, they said.

One day, someone spotted a suspicious vehicle. Neighbors traded a few e-mails about its location, license plate and other details. The vehicle left the neighborhood that same day, Wuebker said.

"We'd like to think it's because everyone is going out to look at the car," she said.

Read the full story at the Sacramento Bee.