Although individual security is an important line of defense, Neighborhood Watch programs are proven to cut crime, according to Nancy Aguilera, North County crime prevention supervisor for the Sheriff's Department.
There are a range of Neighborhood Watch groups in North County. Some are loosely organized, some tightly.
The Sheriff's Department prefers a relaxed approach. The genesis of a new group usually begins with a phone call to police from a concerned citizen.
A local crime prevention specialist will usually advise the caller to invite neighbors to an hourlong meeting at the caller's home. At the meeting, a deputy or Neighborhood Watch liaison will teach the basics of home security and tell the group how to get organized.
After hearing about what constitutes suspicious behavior and when to call for help, the local residents turn to the most important part of the meeting, getting to know each other.
"One of the problems in an area like ours is that often people do not know many of our neighbors," said Mary Johnson, coordinator of a Del Mar group. Johnson, who became active after her purse was stolen from her bedroom while she was home, cited the high turnover of neighbors as one obstacle.
"The program gets people to know who belongs in the area," she said. "That's the only way a neighborhood can be vigilant."
According to Johnson, a good Neighborhood Watch group is very easy to operate. The members simply stay aware and look out for each other.
"This is not a vigilante thing--there are no patrols. We just have each others' phone numbers and are careful in a cooperative way."
For example, the neighbors have a good idea of who is likely to be at home at certain hours of the day or night. If activity is spotted in an apartment or house that would not normally be occupied, another neighbor might stroll by to get a better look. If things still seem suspicious, a call would be made to the sheriff.
Another effective measure was the posting of two Neighborhood Watch signs, Johnson said, brought through residents' contributions. Johnson believes there has been a drop in suspicious activity since the signs were installed.
One advantage of a Neighborhood Watch group is the link it provides between citizens and police forces. A departmental liaison can keep members of groups informed of crime trends in their areas or note bad habits, such as leaving garage doors open.
Although Johnson acknowledges that one or two people seem to do most of the work in keeping the group going, she said there is really very little "work" to be done.
"You see the neighbors anyway, and that has brought us together in a friendly way," she said. "It's really not a burden to keep this thing rolling, and it makes us feel much better. . . . We have had remarkably little trouble since (starting the group)."
Oceanside's program is more formal.
The Neighborhood Watch is run by a board of directors elected by the city's 500 or so Neighborhood Watch captains. The board meets with police once a month.
But individual groups operate differently. Some are like Johnson's group in Del Mar, but others actively patrol their neighborhoods. The patrols are unarmed and are discouraged from confronting crooks. At the first sign of trouble, they are advised to call the police.
"It's neighbors helping neighbors," said Bob George of the Oceanside Police Department.
"We try to make it a little tighter (than the Sheriff's Department). . . . Most professional crooks, as soon as they see Neighborhood Watch signs, will stay out of the area."
Once crime drops, however, keeping the groups active can be a problem.
"The problems will dissipate, and then the Neighborhood Watch dissipates until there's trouble again. But, in crime prevention, you've got to close the barn door before the horses get out," George said.
George cautions groups against overreacting when they sense trouble.
"It's not against the law for a guy to walk down your sidewalk, even if you don't know him," he said.
Individuals interested in learning more about Neighborhood Watch or other crime prevention programs can call the following police numbers: Carlsbad: Jodee Sasway, 931-2105 . Encinitas: Patty Drain. 966-3585 . Escondido: Dale Whaley, 741-4791.
Oceanside: Bob George, 966-4920 . Rancho Bernardo: Philip Balmanno, 538-8146 . Vista: Nancy Aguilera, 940-4565.