NEW GROUP ON THE BLOCK?

An upcoming meeting of a local neighborhood crime watch group has sparked a debate over how many crime watch groups are needed for downtown Columbus and how far their members should go to protect local residents.

The Columbus Police Department partners with 14 neighborhood crime watch groups across the city, said Lt. Matt Harris, police department spokesman.

The two largest groups are each based in the downtown Columbus area — the Ninth Street Area Neighborhood Watch, sponsored by the Lincoln-Central Neighborhood Family Center, and the Historic Downtown Neighborhood Alliance, or HDNA.

The borders of the downtown crime watch groups, which work closely together, cover the entire historic downtown area, including Ninth Street, Harris said.

However, local Ninth Street resident Chris Rutan has been working for several years to establish a third group, known as the Ninth Street Park Neighborhood Watch.

Rutan is an active member of the Columbus community who has run for public office — unsuccessfully — as a Democrat multiple times, including in 2010 for the Columbus Township Advisory Board, in 2011 and 2015 for the District 1 City Council seat and in 2014 for Columbus Township trustee.

His crime watch group was initially created in 2010, and he has been working in recent years to revive its efforts.

Members of the Ninth Street Park Neighborhood Watch — about 10 in all — have regular meetings, but the group is not recognized as an official city or police department partner. However, Rutan said his neighborhood watch is officially recognized by the National Sheriff’s Association.

But the two existing downtown watch groups are questioning the need for additional efforts outside of their own organizations.

Rutan said his neighborhood watch has been at odds with the Lincoln-Central watch since September 2014, when Ninth Street residents first approached Harris about forming a neighborhood watch in their area that would be sponsored by the family center.

New group takes shape

The neighborhood watch that began in 2010 had become inactive, and a survey of residents in the Ninth Street neighborhood by the Lincoln-Central center showed that residents were interested in forming a new group, said Lisa Pein, a member of the Ninth Street Area Neighborhood Watch that’s connected to the community resource center.Pein, along with resident Bert Held, coordinate their group’s efforts. However, there are no official leaders of the group, Pein said, a characteristic of neighborhood watches that Harris said is important. All residents should feel equally important in matters related to their safety, he said.As the Lincoln-Central group began establishing itself in the Ninth Street area and forming an official partnership with the police department, Rutan said he tried — often to no avail — to gain the same traction for his group.

Today, the Lincoln-Central watch works with city officials, the city police department and the county to watch for and report suspicious activity in its designated neighborhood, Harris said. They also hold open monthly meetings to hear residents’ concerns about the neighborhood and work collaboratively as neighbors and with law enforcement to address those concerns, he said.

Randy Allman, executive director of the Lincoln-Central center, said the Ninth Street Area Watch also partners with other nonprofit organizations — such as United Way of Bartholomew County and Heritage Fund _ The Community Foundation of Bartholomew County — to complete projects in the Ninth Street neighborhood. For example, Allman said the watch has partnered with other community organizations to upgrade local homes.

“They are a model of success,” Harris said. “They are everything you could want in a crime watch group.”

Harris had similar praise for the Historic Downtown Neighborhood Alliance, which focuses on historic preservation in the downtown area in addition to crime watch efforts. Both groups consistently have about 20 regular members, Harris said.

Differences in organizations

But from his perspective, Rutan said the downtown alliance does not do real crime watch work.Rather than walking through the streets intentionally looking for criminals, the alliance members report suspicious activity to the police when they see it, said Sheryl Nulph, HDNA coordinator.“We do not walk the streets as vigilantes,” Nulph said.

Even though the alliance has efforts toward historic preservation, Nulph said the group still has an emphasis on downtown crime watch.

But Rutan said he does not believe the alliance’s efforts constitute a true neighborhood watch, so his group voted at its February meeting to extend its borders to cover the areas between Washington Street and Central Avenue and First and 11th streets, encompassing all of downtown.

Those are the borders the Ninth Street Park Neighborhood Watch originally worked within, Rutan said. However, Rutan said he had conceded some of that area to HDNA’s efforts.

Now that the historic alliance has decided to focus its efforts on both crime watch and preservation, Rutan said he felt the need to re-extend his group’s boundaries, especially considering the fact that HDNA does not patrol the streets the same way he does.

“We’ve pushed the criminals more toward downtown to the Washington Street area,” Rutan said in an earlier interview. “If they’re not going to be a crime watch group, we don’t want criminals knocking on our door attempting to come back to our area.”

Role of neighborhood watches

However, Harris said the police department does not endorse any sort of crime watch activity that would put the members of the community in danger by asking untrained residents to patrol the streets, and instead supports the methods used by the alliance.Neighborhood watches are expected to do what the members of the alliance and the Lincoln-Central group do, Harris said — report suspicious activity when they see it.“We do not advocate for the public to be out and acting in the role of a police officer patrolling on foot or in their vehicle for safety reasons,” he said.

Rutan said Harris has advised him against putting a target on his back for criminals by doing street patrols. However, the Ninth Street resident said he thinks the mere presence of a citizen patrol can be enough to deter criminal activity.

“We want to make sure people know that we are out there,” Rutan said. “Seeing a patrol is a good thing.”

Additionally, Rutan said neighborhood watches need to be out on the streets to meet with local residents to hear their concerns.

But Harris said the two downtown watches partnering with the police department learn about residents’ concerns through their public, open meetings each month.

Because they are the official Columbus Police Department partners, members of the alliance and the Lincoln-Central neighborhood watch said they are the true crime watch groups covering the downtown and Ninth Street areas.

However, Rutan is still proceeding with efforts toward re-establishing his watch in the Ninth Street — and now downtown — community.

Upstart group meets Monday

Rutan’s group is sponsoring a meeting Monday with Columbus Mayor Jim Lienhoop.Lienhoop, who will be joined by Harris and Columbus Police Department Chief Jon Rohde among others, will discuss his plans to reduce crime in the downtown area at the meeting.Other city officials will be asked to speak at future meetings, as well, Rutan said.

The Lincoln-Central watch had a similar meeting March 22, when Harris and Columbus Police Officer Troy Love addressed local residents. Additionally, Lienhoop will be the featured speaker at an upcoming meeting of the Ninth Street Area watch, Pein said.

Similarly, the alliance hosted the mayor and city council members Tom Dell and Elaine Wagner at its Feb. 23 meeting.

Although Lienhoop said he is willing to listen to input from all residents, including members of Rutan’s neighborhood watch, the mayor said officially the city will proceed in its partnerships with the alliance and the Ninth Street Area Neighborhood Watch on crime-reduction efforts.

Rutan said he has tried in the past to extend an olive branch to the other two downtown watch groups, but has been repeatedly shut down.

Allman acknowledged that Rutan has tried to present ideas and projects to the Ninth Street Area watch. However, Allman said there are certain protocols that must be followed within the group to get projects done, and Rutan has tried to circumvent those protocols. In those situations, Allman said the group will not pursue any proposed project or idea.

Harris said all meetings of the alliance and the Lincoln-Central neighborhood watch are open to all residents, even those who do not live in the immediate downtown area, so a third group would be an unnecessary duplication of efforts.

Rather than attempting to track down every criminal on the street, Harris said residents who are interested in making Columbus streets safer should work closely with local law enforcement to ensure that crime prevention efforts are done in a safe and effective manner.

“If you see something suspicious, report it,” he said. “Look out for your neighbor.”

Do's and don'ts of crime watch groups

When a group of neighbors want to form a new crime watch group, the Columbus Police Department hands out information on the proper procedures to follow. There are several do’s and don’ts crime watch groups must be aware of, including:

Do:

  • Look out for your neighbors
  • Get to know your neighbors and their routines so that if there’s something out of the ordinary, you’ll notice and report it
  • Learn techniques to reduce the risk of victimization in your home, vehicle or in public places
  • Learn the importance of recognizing suspicious activities and how to properly report them
  • Learn to make your home more secure
  • Work together as a cohesive body of neighbors and address the concerns of the community

Don’t:

  • Form a vigilante group that works outside the normal procedures of law enforcement offices
  • Guarantee 100 percent that crime will not occur in your neighborhood
  • Encourage participants to accept personal risk to deter crime

Crime watch contact information

To learn more about one of the three downtown neighborhood crime watch groups, contact:

Historic Downtown Neighborhood Alliance

Ninth Street Area Neighborhood Watch

Ninth Street Park Neighborhood Watch

For general information about neighborhood watches or to learn how to start your own, contact the Columbus Police Department at 812-376-2600.

Author photo
Olivia Covington is a reporter for The Republic. She can be reached at ocovington@therepublic.com or 812-379-5712.