ECPD to residents: 'We need you'

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Elizabeth City police Sgt. Jamie Judge urges city residents to become involved in community watch groups, Thursday during a meeting at Knobbs Creek Recreation Center.

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By William F. West
Staff Writer

Monday, March 26, 2018

Because only two community watch groups are currently active in Elizabeth City, both city and police officials are recruiting residents to form new groups to help officers catch crime suspects and make city streets safer.

Last week, city police held a meeting at Knobbs Creek Recreation Center to encourage more participation in community watch.

“Our goal is to have another asset in you as a people,” Sgt. Jamie Judge told the approximately 20 residents who attended the event Thursday night. “We want you to be able to be our eyes and ears.”

Currently the only community watch groups still active in the city are the Renaissance Community group in the Walker Avenue area and the St. James AME Zion Church group in the Park Street area. At one time, there were 13.

Police want to change that. They believe that by increasing the number of active community watch groups, they can increase the information flow from the frontlines where crime happens — neighborhoods — to the department’s community resources division, which in turn can better inform patrol officers and investigators where they should be focusing their efforts.

But to do that, they believe they need more citizen participation in community watch.

“Our ability to police is no greater than the ability of the people that we’re policing,” Judge said. “This badge is nothing more than the authority you allow me to have. Now I’m asking you not only to allow me to do my job, I’m asking you to help me do my job.”

Also addressing citizens about the need for revitalized community watch groups was Jackie Latson, president of the Elizabeth City Together civic group in the city’s 4th Ward. Latson told meeting attendees they have to reach, teach and empower each other.

“The relationship between neighborhood residents and the police department should never, ever be looked at as ‘us and them,’” Latson said.

She said community watch groups not only help provide police with vital details about crimes in their neighborhoods, they also give police a chance to inform residents about how best to protect themselves against crime.

Latson said citizens also need to become more active in keeping their communities clean and well-lit at night. She urged citizens to work more closely with police to make their communities better.

“If you don’t want to be a part of the problem in your neighborhood, then be willing to be a part of the solution. It’s is simple as that,” she said.

Also addressing attendees was Cpl. T.J. Etheridge-Mitchell, a community resource officer with the police department. Etheridge-Mitchell, who has been with the department 15 years, recalled there once were 13 active community watch groups in the city.

“Can anybody raise their hand and just take a guess at how many community watch groups we have today?” she asked.

She said she believed a reason for such a low number of groups is people are afraid to report instances of trouble.

Lt. Darrell Felton, who had been standing in the back of the room, approached the front and spoke. Felton said there are also positive reasons why there are only a couple of active community watch groups today.

“Some of them disbanded for other reasons, but I can tell you one other reason why I know they disbanded: Crime went away in their neighborhoods. So, they stopped meeting,” he said.

While that is of course a good thing, Felton said having community watch groups is important, because they help ensure ongoing dialogue between citizens and police.

He noted that keeping crime from shifting from one neighborhood to another is a key role community watch groups can play. He cited, as an example, what can happen when a family leaves a neighborhood and rents out the house they left behind. He said the new occupant could be someone who arrives with people police are looking for, and who use the house to sell illegal drugs.

Felton said it’s critical for neighbors who notice something strange going on at houses like that in his example to talk to police. That way officers don’t have to always ride by the house, trying to figure out what’s going on there, he said.

“I have 40 sets of eyes watching that house” giving police “real-time intelligence” what’s going on there, Felton said.

Judge said a recent trend in property crime is the result of increased “targets of opportunity” — unlocked cars, in particular.

Felton suggested one reason there’s been an uptick in stolen firearms is that motorists are leaving them in their cars, feeling safe because they have other firearms in their home.

“We have people in this city that have had a gun stolen out of their unlocked, unsecured car three times,” Judge said.

One area where community watch groups can help, he said, is by encouraging their neighbors to be more careful protecting their property. They can tell their neighbors, “Look, you’re going to get my stuff broken into because you’re acting the fool. Lock your mess up,” Judge said.

Janice Craig, who owns Footprint Christian Resources downtown, said she found the community watch presentation informative.

Craig noted her business is located on the upper end of North Poindexter Street where she often sees a number of people either loitering or wandering. She said she favors having a community watch group for the downtown, adding, “I would like to be part of it.”

Jill Changary and her husband, Stephen, retirees from New York, were complimentary of police after Thursday’s meeting.

“I’m grateful that they had this meeting and that they’re trying to get more citizens involved in helping,” she said.

Her husband added, “The more feet on the ground, the more eyes in the street, the better off we are.”

Officer Treven Franks, a community resources officer who coordinated Thursday’s meeting, has been named the police department’s liaison to the downtown area. After Thursday’s meeting, he said he would like to establish a community watch group for the northern end of the downtown, noting it’s lacked one for a while.

Franks said another meeting to discuss establishing a downtown community watch group is set for 7 p.m. on April 19 at Knobbs Creek Recreation Center.