Chief Koval's Blog

Love (or at least get to know) Thy Neighbor

January 8, 2016 8:57 AM

With the new year upon us comes the inevitable ritual where we consider "resolutions" to strive for in 2016.  Both at work as well as at home, I am bombarded by those who are thrusting THEIR suggestions on ME for 2016, to include nonsense such as cutting down on my consumption of Kickstart(s) (Chief's gotta stay properly caffeinated to stay vertical-not happening), cutting down on my work hours (pipe dream-no sale), getting more rest (more than enough time for that when I take a "dirt nap" for all eternity), eating more than protein bars for meals (who has the time or the effort to make "real" food?) and exercising more (it's hard to exercise in a polyester monkey suit--my uniform--which also serve as my pajamas) .  To my support network, whom I have no doubt have my best interests at heart, I invoke the following axiom:  "Eat right, exercise daily, get sufficient sleep---and die anyway!"  Now leave me alone! :)

But beyond the pale of personal resolutions lies a more promising resolution that I would like to advance in the realm of my profession.  In 2016, I am urging citizens to get to know neighbors that live on their block, on their apartment floor, or wherever they spend a lot of time.  Optimally, I would also love to see the formation of more neighbor watch programs---formal or informal--to assist us in being better guardians to our community.

The basic precepts of community policing are listed on our web site (http://www.cityofmadison.com/police/community/policing/) and one of the starting propositions that must be stated plainly is "The police cannot go it alone."  We cannot be everywhere, at all times. This necessitates that we forge partnerships with our constituents and enlist their assistance as the "eyes and ears" of sharing, informing, and reporting those instances of suspicious activities or behaviors that merit police attention.  It is only through YOUR timely reports that we can endeavor to identify, evaluate, and (if appropriate) initiate some form of intervention.  When one looks at the sobering statistics of mass shootings occurring all too frequently in our country, in 60% of the cases the shooting is over and the damage is done before the police even arrive!  This suggests (to me) that we have to do a better job of acknowledging that training the police and citizens on how to respond to active shootings must place a greater emphasis, on the front end,  in urging people to recognize and assist police in "threat assessments." That's where the citizen can play a seminal role in the prevention of mass shootings.

Those "seasoned" citizens like me (code for "older") may recall the 1964 documentary of the Kitty Genovese story, entitled:  "The Detached Americans."  By way of a brief synopsis, in 1964, Genovese was repeatedly stabbed to death and it was widely reported that dozens of witnesses to the murder--as many as 38--failed to intervene in any way (not even calling the police).  According to "Advances in the History of Psychology," the case is often cited as the basis for what is known as the "bystander effect," whereby individuals fail to aid in emergency situations when others are present.  Psychologists suggest that this failure to help people in need is often attributed to a diffusion of responsibility, as it is assumed that others present will offer assistance.

After over 30 years in policing, I can attest to the bystander effect but would also add other elements that can contribute to the lack of timely reports of concerning matters.  Besides assuming that someone else will call the police, there are those who don't want to get involved, or believe the activity is so innocuous that the police shouldn't be bothered (and does not rise to the point of calling it in).  It should be noted that callers can remain anonymous when reporting things to the Dane County Department of Public Safety Communications (i.e., 9-1-1 Center).  And if the incident being reported is fairly benign, then the Center has a mechanism for triaging those calls that do not have a sense of urgency.  For those who cannot or will not contact the 9-1-1 Center, at least email or call (leave a voice mail) in the District where the incident has occurred.  While not staffed 24/7 with support personnel, I would rather we at least have some type of intelligence that can be used in our examination of actionable activities or determine if the observation is a reflection of a pattern or modus operandi (m.o.) of some other investigations that we are working.

MPD has countless examples where conscientious neighbors have played an instrumental role in thwarting crime or assisting us in apprehensions.  By way of example, as recently as 1/5/16, a group of concerned west side neighbors, including one who took her own surveillance pictures, came together to help MPD take a burglary suspect into custody.  There had been several daytime break-ins in the area and thanks to the efforts of these neighbors we are convinced that these citizens may have kept a crime or crimes from happening.

In December of last year, an alert citizen provided us with a detailed description of a SUV seen speeding away from a recently committed armed robbery of a pizza place.  This tidbit of information was synthesized by a MPD Crime Analyst who then immediately shared this intelligence with law enforcement partners across Dane County and resulted in a Fitchburg police lieutenant spotting the vehicle and subsequently arresting the offender.  "But for" this one citizen taking the time and making the effort to call the police, who knows how many other robberies may have occurred and the arrested individual is being linked to a series of crimes.

In the spirit of community/police partnerships in achieving an even safer Madison, I want to put in a plug for those in our midst who have worked earnestly to create formal and informal "neighborhood" watch programs.  A neighborhood watch is simply an organized group of citizens devoted to crime prevention.  It is a coalition of neighbors that agree, together, to keep an eye on one another's properties and report suspicious incidents to the police.  They are NOT encouraged to actively intervene in matters . . .(i.e., the 2012 fatal shooting of teenager Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida by George Zimmerman comes to mind!). 

One crowning example of an individual who has dedicated hundreds of hours to keeping Madison safe is Steve Fitzsimmons, who lives on the west side and heads up one of our most active neighborhood watch programs in Midvale Heights.  When I first took office as Chief, Steve welcomed me and then went on to establish, from ground zero, a neighborhood watch program that has grown to over 475 people.  They meet regularly, have guest speakers, exchange ideas and observations and brainstorm on how they can keep their neighborhood safe(r).  Collectively, they have established newsletters, draft crime fighting literature, secured a consistent meeting space, and even make use of a web site!  We have over 120 registered neighborhoods in the City of Madison; just imagine how much more effective MPD could be if more neighborhoods were galvanized in adopting measures like Midvale Heights!

The story of neighborhood watches like Midvale Heights is not merely a "feel good" exercise of constituents getting together to celebrate civic pride; it has proven to be invaluable in preventing crime and apprehending criminals.  Just last October, we had an incident which occurred in the 500 block of Charles Lane when some scam artists alleging they were in the neighborhood to "trim trees" (yet they were not observed to have any saws), were going from door-to-door looking for "work."  An alert neighbor (who was a part of the Midvale Heights neighborhood watch) was originally suspicious when she saw two men from this crew peering into windows.  It was at that point that she had a conversation with the men and things did not line up in her mind.  This conscientious neighbor called the police, described their vehicle, and the West District liaison officer promptly effected an arrest.  Score this as a big win for the Midvale Heights Neighborhood Watch!

While Midvale Heights has certainly become a benchmark for neighborhood watch programs, I would encourage even informal contacts with the folks you live around.  As a dog walker, this has always given me an edge in getting to know people where I live and dog walkers are among our most observant citizens, given their familiarity of the neighborhood coupled with the fact that dogs are the ideal calling card for getting to know others.   On a different note we can all do more to take self-help measures in better protecting our belongings and keeping ourselves safer.  Most of our thefts from autos occur when vehicles are left unlocked.  Many of our residential burglaries have garage doors that are left wide open and unmonitored.  On campus, students frequently leave windows ajar or unlocked.  Coming into the holiday season, we always get hit hard by packages left out in plain view by deliveries.  In our apartment complex, my wife started taking all of the packages that got delivered into the common foyer of mailboxes and placed them on the other side of the security door.  Since we were gone for a week over the holidays, we came back to find that others had followed suit.  Once someone takes the first step, it is remarkable how this behavior can be contagious, modeled and yields great results.

At the end of the day, you are not being nosey or a busybody for reporting suspicious activity . . .it's being a good neighbor!

(If you are interested in starting your own neighborhood watch program, feel free to contact Police Officer Rodney Wilson for tips.  Ofc. Wilson can be contacted at rwilson@cityofmadison.com.  (608) 267-1984.  Below is a checklist (prepared by Ofc. Wilson) for those who want to create a "formal" neighborhood watch program).

The Madison Police Department does not dictate what your program will look like.  We do request the following information:

  • The name of Neighborhood Watch
  • The area of coverage
  • Coordinator name and email

The steps involved in starting a Neighborhood Watch:

  • Identify coordinator
  • Create a board or small group
  • Notify your neighbors of your intent
  • Goal or mission statement
  • Create a contact list (email or phone)

First Meeting with neighborhood members and Law Enforcement:

  • Secure meeting area
  • Invite Crime Prevention Coordinator Officer Rodney Wilson
  • Identify and Invite members
  • Officer Wilson will identify district liaison Officer
  • Officer Wilson will outline and discuss start up

Your watch can be very active with neighborhood activities. 

Your watch can be an important resource for neighbors to contact with questions or concerns.

This is a community driven program.  MAPD will provide you with safety information and tools for reporting crime.

Your goal is to make the neighborhood safe through community engagement.

Posted by: Chief Koval

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