By Jaimee Lynn Fletcher
The shadowy cartoon figure on signs posted to light poles throughout neighborhoods across Orange County is a symbol many know well. If you’re a criminal looking to target a home in a tract with such signs, be warned: There are eyes on you.
But like the color on these signs in many communities, the Neighborhood Watch groups they represent have faded with time. One Westminster neighborhood, however, is reinvigorating what it means to run a Neighborhood Watch program, and the effort seems to be working.
“We hope others learn about this neighborhood’s proactive effort and are empowered to follow suit,” said Westminster PD Cmdr. Cameron Knauerhaze. “We want this to serve as the model for Neighborhood Watch programs across the city.”
Missi Hernandez remembers her mother dragging her to quarterly Neighborhood Watch meetings in the Lakewood neighborhood where she grew up.
Neighbors really knew each other and were knowledgeable about the happenings in their community.
When she had a home of her own, she wanted a neighborhood like that.
So when Hernandez, a longshoreman, moved to the Westminster tract near Bolsa Chica Street and Westminster Boulevard, with her husband and children, it was one of very first things she asked.
“Is there a Neighborhood Watch?”
The answer likely mirrored the answer in dozens of communities: “Well there was, but it hasn’t been active in years.”
Hernandez wanted to change that.
Cheryl Acoutin remembers when nobody in the Sol Vista tract locked their doors or windows.
When she moved to the community 40 years ago, crime was low, and neighborhood engagement was high.
As the decades passed, not surprisingly, that dynamic slowly flip-flopped, and Acoutin became concerned.
“Before AB109 and Prop 47 we didn’t have to worry about (property crime) as much,” she said. “Doors were open on every house.”
A real estate agent in the area, Acoutin said she started fielding phone calls from elderly widows living in the neighborhood worried they might be a target for criminals.
“They really are afraid,” she said.
Acoutin wants to change that.
Hernandez and Acoutin nearly two years ago started a forum for their neighborhood through Nextdoor — an online social community that allows residents to create private groups and share news, sell items and post events.
The group started with about 40 members.
Hernandez and Acoutin decided the social group would be their jumping off point to resurrect the Neighborhood Watch program.
They held their first meeting in October 2014 and only five people showed up.
So the duo pushed harder.
They started distributing safety information and reports of recent crimes that happened over several months in their neighborhood. The list of burglaries, vandalism and even a robbery was printed on slick fliers with the familiar Neighborhood Watch logo.
“I think that’s the point when we caught everyone’s attention,” said Hernandez, the group’s president. “They saw the list of crime and were saying things like, ‘What is happening in our neighborhood? I thought we lived in a safe neighborhood?’
“But this is happening everywhere. We do live in a good neighborhood, and we want it to stay that way. It’s all about communicating with each other.”
Even the best neighborhoods aren’t immune to crimes of opportunity.
The women recalled several instances where their neighborhood had been subject to suspicious characters or burglaries.
Acoutin’s own home was hit in November 2015 when a burglar used a crowbar to break in through the rear sliding glass door.
“They were in and out of my home in just a couple minutes,” she said. “They stole some small electronics and foreign currency I had from when I was a flight attendant.
“After that, I thought we really need to kick this into high gear.”
Their Nextdoor page now has more than 500 members, and their quarterly Neighborhood Watch meetings draw upwards of 70 people.
“They’re almost getting too big to have in someone’s home,” Hernandez said. “And it’s not the same people every time. We see a rotating group.”
Higher attendance means more active residents looking out for their neighbors and their homes.
“They see how vital this is,” Hernandez said. “It’s thriving and our neighbors are really caring about each other.”
Their meetings also include information on what to do if someone sees something suspicious and how to report a crime to the police department.
“Sometimes people say they are afraid to call the police about a situation because they are afraid it might not actually be something and it would be like ‘crying wolf,’” Hernandez said. “But we tell everyone: If you see something or you have a weird feeling, call the police.”
Their efforts also go beyond meeting and distributing safety information.
Hernandez and Acoutin have purchased new signage for their neighborhood and also have raised more than $7,000 to install high-definition security cameras in several locations.
Two have been installed so far, and two more are on the way.
“I take it as a big compliment that our neighbors trust us,” Hernandez said. “Our sense of community here has really come together.”
And crime seems to be on a downward trend.
The community has seen a steady drop in burglaries since April. That month, there were six reported burglaries, and in September, so far, there have been none.
The city overall also has seen a 10 percent drop in property crime and Knauerhaze said it’s programs like this one that help contribute to the decrease.
“It’s a good barometer, but you still have to stay vigilant,” Knauerhaze told the women on a recent Wednesday. “It lets people know this is not the neighborhood to hit.”
The women said they plan to stay proactive and currently are working to recruit residents in neighboring communities to have a greater impact.
“It’s the ripple effect,” Hernandez said. “We are the stones in the water and it just continues to move outward. We can do this. We can band together.”
This article was provided to the OC Tribune in cooperation with Behind the Badge, which covers news, practices and issued related to law enforcement. For more, go to behindthebadgeoc.com .