When Linda Holland moved in 1980 to Sarasota, the Gillespie Park neighborhood was rife with crime, she said. Immediately, she had to make a decision about her new home.
“Did I want to improve the neighborhood and get to the point where it was a safe neighborhood?” Holland said. “Or did I just want to walk away?”
Holland stayed, forming a neighborhood-watch group to combat crime in the area. Thirty-three years after Holland arrived in Sarasota, the group is still active — albeit with a less formalized structure — and serving as a model for new neighborhood-watch groups forming in the city.
Under the direction of Police Chief Bernadette DiPino, who took her position at the beginning of the year, the Sarasota Police Department has focused on community-led policing. As a result, the city has seen an increased interest in neighborhood watch groups, according to Officer Cherie McKeon, part of SPD’s Crime Prevention Unit.
McKeon and DiPino both credited the existing neighborhood structures in the city for creating an easy transition for areas interested in forming a neighborhood watch. Even groups that don’t want to form a “traditional” neighborhood watch can easily take a more active role to help police their neighborhood, DiPino said.
“The thing about Sarasota is, they already have the neighborhood groups that meet frequently,” DiPino said. “It’s great because we can jump into those meetings and share information and data.”
The increase in neighborhood-watch activity can’t entirely be credited to better SPD outreach, though.
Recent statistics show that, particularly for burglaries and thefts, Sarasota’s per capita crime rate is higher than most Florida municipalities. McKeon said that people often form these groups to help fight problems they believe the police department is failing to address on its own.
“They may have seen an increase in burglaries or a perceived increase in burglaries,” McKeon said. “As the weather cools off up north and people start moving down, they will see an increase in the transient population.”
Still, getting assistance from citizens to better fight and prevent crime is the goal of the SPD’s efforts, and the presence of neighborhood-watch groups is a boon in that regard, DiPino said.
McKeon said any association of neighborhood watch groups with vigilantism was a misconception. The focus, she said, is primarily on communication, both within the neighborhood and with the police. As the SPD teaches residents what to keep an eye out for, residents are equipped with the ability to better perceive when a suspicious person or activity is problematic.
When that information makes its way back to the police department with greater regularity, the SPD can more effectively police on a local level without increasing the number of officers on the street.
“In order to fight crime, we all have to participate,” McKeon said. “That’s what we try to encourage with the residents: Communicate with each other.”
Although the Gillespie Park neighborhood watch group is more relaxed than it once was, it embodies that idea of constant communication. Holland said Gillespie Park residents have shared their experiences with other neighborhoods interested in forming a neighborhood watch, and that the group is still going strong more than two decades after forming.
“It’s still active in terms of people watching out for each other,” Holland said. “If people are in the neighborhood you’re not familiar with, you become very attuned to whether they’re looking for trouble.”
Beyond the crime numbers — which are improving, DiPino said — there are less tangible effects of the community-led approach that the chief values.
“They can only go so far,” DiPino said about crime statistics. “Some of it has to do with trust within the community, and I think the big thing I’m seeing is a bigger trust of our police department.”
That trust can be found in Gillespie Park, where Holland said the neighborhood was willing to do whatever it took to assist the agencies that provide public safety.
“We’re a really big supporter of the SPD,” Holland said. “There isn’t anything we won’t do to help maintain the safety and security of not only our neighborhood, but other neighborhoods.”
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