With a floodlight in one hand and a squawking two-way radio in the other, John Marquez turned into the dark alley and peered down the row of carports favored by graffiti vandals and drug dealers.
All was quiet.
"Even if I don't see anybody they see the light. They know we're out here," said Marquez, 47, on a recent Friday night. "When people are doing their thing--selling their drugs or whatever--they don't like people looking at them."
By casting their lights where they are not welcome, Marquez and a small group of his north Oxnard neighbors are hoping to flush crime and graffiti from their middle-class housing tract. Using a small retail storefront as a base, the group prowls the area most nights of the week, ready to alert police to anything suspicious.
They are not alone.
Across Ventura County, from Oxnard to Thousand Oaks, a small but growing number of citizens are banding together to patrol their own streets, parks and schools.
Fed up with crime and convinced police are outnumbered, the patrol members, who range from working professionals to senior citizens, are taking the concept of Neighborhood Watch one step further.
Calling themselves "the eyes and ears" of local law enforcement, they memorize the jargon of police codes, write down license plates of suspicious cars and diligently paint over graffiti when it appears.
Some go so far as to set up all-night stakeouts in areas frequently hit by graffiti vandals.
"Anytime you get somebody arrested you feel good about it. Anyone would feel that way," said Herb Holtzberg, who coordinates Oxnard's Sierra Linda patrol, of which Marquez is a member.
Although the most active patrols have taken root in the west county, the idea is also catching on in Thousand Oaks, where several recent gang-related shootings and assaults have jolted residents.
"We are not used to that," said Dick Randall, 67, a retired aerospace engineer who is trying to organize a patrol in Thousand Oaks' affluent Lynn Ranch. "We want to stop it before it gets started."
In the past six months, Oxnard police have counted eight new patrols, all confined to specific subdivisions. In Fillmore, a patrol of about 30 people hit the streets two months ago. And in Thousand Oaks, 50 or so Lynn Ranch residents recently showed up for an organizational meeting.
Most recently, a foot patrol modeling themselves after the Guardian Angels began walking the streets of Ventura several months ago, then moved to the Marina Village housing complex in Port Hueneme. None of its members, however, live in Marina Village.
Although the number of patrols has grown rapidly, they are not a new idea. Ojai and Camarillo have each had volunteer squads for more than a decade. And patrols have been used successfully in Los Angeles County and other parts of the country.
Most of the new patrols carry cellular phones, police scanners, maps and high-powered flashlights. Optional gear includes video cameras, binoculars and evidence bags. All have strict rules against carrying weapons.
Despite their similarities, some patrols are clearly more aggressive than others.
In Oxnard, the Rio Lindo patrol has become the model for most of the new groups. Since it began more than three years ago, Rio Lindo patrollers have made 27 citizen's arrests. Its members are not afraid to chase fleeing suspects and hold them until police arrive.
But organizers of the new Fillmore patrol, and of the one in Lynn Ranch, say they're not comfortable going that far.
"If we see something, we just go and report it and get out of the vicinity," said Mary Cowans, an organizer of the Fillmore patrol, which only accepts people 35 and older.
"We just want to keep our town as clean as possible and as free of crime as possible," said Hank Carrillo, a retired sheriff's lieutenant who also organized the Fillmore patrol.
For the most part, police in Ventura County endorse the concept of citizens' patrols as an effective way to prevent crime.
"The Sheriff's Department fully supports it as long as we have some input into the methods," said Deputy Paul Higgason, who is working with the Lynn Ranch patrol.
Fillmore's patrol works closely with the Sheriff's Department and members are briefed on what to look for during their four- to six-hour shifts.
Acceptance by police is one of the keys to successful patrols, according to Robert Trojanowicz, director of the National Center for Community Policing at Michigan State University.
At the same time, law-enforcement officials worry that some patrols might become too aggressive and infringe on others' rights.
"If it means they're going to go out there and be quasi-police officers and intervene, as opposed to calling police, then we are not comfortable with that," said Keith, the Oxnard crime analyst.
Sheriff's Deputy Glenn Sander, who coordinates the Camarillo Citizens' Patrol, said his department insists patrol members stay in their cars, unless it is to aid someone whose life is in danger.
"If you start grabbing people and detaining people, there's too much liability for the city and for the department," he said. "The people who want to do that should join the reserve program."
John Branthoover, the Rio Lindo organizer, said he doesn't let those concerns bother him.
"If I worried about a liability issue or insurance, I never would have gotten it going," he said.
In fact, when Branthoover speaks to neighborhood groups who are thinking of starting a patrol, he tells them bluntly: "If that's your worry, get out of here."
The Rio Lindo patrol has faced no lawsuits and has had only one incident where a member became too aggressive and identified himself as a police officer while trying to stop a vandal, Branthoover said. That person was asked to leave the patrol.
Whatever the risks, Ventura County's patrols have clearly gotten results.
In Oxnard, crime has dropped dramatically in areas with active patrols. For example, the Sea Air and Fremont North neighborhoods have seen serious crimes drop 56% and 54%, respectively, said police spokesman David Keith.
In Sea Air, there were 18 serious crimes reported in the first three months of this year. After the patrol started, the number dropped to eight in the following three months.
Even more significant, residential burglaries dropped from seven to zero between the first and second quarters of this year.
"I can't prove it's the patrols, but it is my hunch that that's what's happening," he said.
Although no statistics are available on graffiti incidents, police and residents say they usually notice a sharp dip in tagging in areas where patrol members have committed themselves to covering it up.
Oxnard Officer Jim O'Brien, who is assigned to tackle the city's spiraling graffiti problem, said he has arrested 60 alleged graffiti vandals as a direct result of tips from patrols, Neighborhood Watch groups and anonymous citizens.
"The information and intelligence they gather is tremendous," he said of the patrollers. "The fact that they're watching kids tag the walls until police get there is tremendous."
Perhaps nowhere are the results as dramatic as in Rio Lindo, a neighborhood of 850 homes that is semi-isolated in the city's north corner. Graffiti once covered fences and alleys, and residents were scared to use the park after dark.
Now, the community is virtually graffiti-free and residential burglaries are rare. Branthoover, like many of the volunteers, said he got involved simply because he was tired of seeing the streets around his house trashed. Now, his dream is to have a patchwork of patrols covering all of Oxnard.
In Fillmore, the patrol grew out of frustration over the town's gang problem. Some residents thought youths needed more recreational programs to keep them busy; others thought the patrol was the answer, said Mary Cowans, one of the organizers.
"I think they're just tired of the kids terrorizing around," she said. "Our town used to be a real quiet, safe little town, and I think people want it back."
Still others have more personal motives.
Often, residents who have been victims of crime, or whose relatives have been victims, lead the charge, Trojanowicz said. For others, it's simply a matter of having the time.
"Often, that means retirees, or people who lost their jobs or don't have jobs because the economy is so bad these days," he said.
For Bob Cheney, 40, the spark came nine months ago when a car full of alleged gang members drove by his house and pointed a gun at his 13-year-old son.
"The guys drove off laughing," said Cheney, who has since organized a patrol in the Tierra Vista neighborhood in southeast Oxnard and has been threatened by several youths in his area.
Dave Bowling, a retired Seabee and member of the Tierra Vista patrol, said his home has been burglarized three times in recent years. Before the patrol started, Bowling used to drive around, patrolling the subdivision on his own.
"I can stay at home all day and all night, or I can get out and patrol," he said.