Region crime watch gatherings provide data, forge neighborhood bonds

2013-09-15T00:00:00Z 2013-10-25T00:30:07Z Region crime watch gatherings provide data, forge neighborhood bondsChristine Kraly christine.kraly@nwi.com, (219) 933-4195 nwitimes.com

HAMMOND | Roman and Lucy Kiszenia were tired of patrons of the bar down their block occupying the street's parking spots.

They appealed to city Councilwoman Janet Venecz, D-at large, and helped get permit parking approved.

Venecz, in turn, encouraged the Kiszenias to attend her Edison Community Watch meetings. 

"We haven't missed one yet," Roman said of the crime watch gatherings, which they have been attending for about two years.

Neighborhood crime watches provide residents throughout the region an outlet to learn about crime in their streets and gab about high school football. But police and organizers say the watches can be tricky to institute in communities in which persistent leaders fail to emerge.

South Hammond's persistent leader is Venecz, who peppered a recent meeting with updates about the summer Cal Ripken World Series before giving the floor to city officials and police for updates.

She repeated the mantra she includes in her email updates to residents: "Community is not about me," Venecz said. "It's about us."

To Venecz, the results are in the numbers, boasting that her 4th district, one of Hammond's smallest neighborhoods, has one of the most active watches, a claim backed by Hammond police.

In Gary, block clubs have very little to do with actual crime.

"It's looking more so as a quality of life issue," said Police Cmdr. Kerry Rice, who oversees the Steel City's roughly 70 active block clubs.

The clubs generally work in the same fashion as other community watches, with groups of neighbors gathering to share concerns over everything from garbage pick-up to crime. Rice or another officer typically attend the first couple of club meetings before letting residents run the gatherings on their own.

"We don’t want it to be a police thing," Rice said. "We want it to be a neighbor thing."

Gary Police Chief Wade Ingram calls the clubs the cornerstone of cooperation he's been trying to achieve within the community.

"There's a lot more citizens than police officers," Ingram said. "We need the citizens to be the eyes and ears of the police."

In that vein, Ingram and his department is establishing a website -- expected to be ready in about a week -- aimed at creating a forum for citizens to share information about crime and other community happenings.

East Chicago Police Chief Mark Becker said he wishes his city had more than one particularly active group. But he acknowledges the challenges in getting buy-in from residents.

"You've really got to work hard to get them going and work even harder to keep them going," Becker said.

The key to a good watch is a reciprocal relationship, Becker said, with residents and police equally sharing information.

"You've got to be telling them what you're looking for sometimes," he said.

Portage Police Sgt. Keith Hughes agreed, saying any watch "is a success because it gives people in that particular neighborhood eyes and ears, which definitely helps us."

Portage has been successful in encouraging some residents to run active groups, Hughes said.

But challenges remain.

A shooting took place in recent years in a pocket of the city in which a watch didn't exist, Hughes said. Only after interviewing residents did they learn that some residents saw a suspicious car but didn't report it.

"It always takes people within that community to watch," Hughes said. "That's what's going to make that successful -- a group of people wanting to do this."

It takes people like the Kiszenias in Hammond, who see the watch as not only a way to help deter crime but also to know their neighbors.

The couple helped create a phone tree among residents and pass on watch information on their street. They've made connections and friendships through their watch involvement, Lucy Kiszenia said.

Block parties and sharing stories about families have followed.

"We've learned a lot about each other," Lucy Kiszenia said.

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