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Building Upon Success

Winnebago County Neighborhood Watch Program Tackles New Challenges

Success hasn’t spoiled this Neighborhood Watch. In spite of low crime rates county-wide, the Winnebago County (WI) Neighborhood Watch continues its quest to create even safer communities.

By: The National Sheriffs Association

Following 911, the nation witnessed a dramatic increase in the formation and activity level of pre-existing Neighborhood Watch groups. Winnebago County, Wisconsin was no exception. There, the number of Neighborhood Watch groups spiked 25 percent. The addition of these safety nets further boosted secure neighborhoods in a region that already enjoyed low crime rates. However, these positive statistics hardly prompted the Winnebago County Sheriff’s Office Crime Prevention Division to fall into a state of complacency. Rather, the organization has continued to work to preserve safe communities, educate residents on ways to protect themselves, and help prepare neighborhoods for possible disasters.

Preserving Community Safety

When Crime Prevention Coordinator Steve Herman began working for the Winnebago County Sheriff’s Office in 1995, a mere 12 NW groups existed in the county. Today, that number is more than double. There are now 35 NW groups, 25 of which are active within the county, which consists of roughly 162,000 residents. Officer Herman works directly with residents who occupy the county’s 16 rural and suburban townships.

Over the last year and half, Herman has committed his efforts to educating residents on how to further enhance the communities in which they live and work. In order to make this happen, he has coordinated a number of training sessions for NW members on topics related to personal and neighborhood safety, including installing appropriate locks and lighting, how to spot suspicious activity, and ways to prevent identity theft. “We have been fortunate in that we don’t suffer from a serious crime problem here,” said Herman. “However, that doesn’t mean that we’re immune to problems.” In fact, Herman reports that residents typically contend with such issues as vandalism and reckless driving, and the sessions he offers feature ways residents can protect themselves and their property from such problems. “If we can encourage people to put better locks on their doors and know who should and shouldn’t be in their neighborhoods, we will actually be contributing to reducing crime throughout the state,” said Herman, who also serves as the president of the Wisconsin Crime Prevention Association.

According to Herman, a majority of NW activities and training workshops are based on feedback from community members. “We have one community that has a lot of young families, so at our initial NW meeting, we described a kids’ ID program that we offer, provided them with do-it-yourself DNA kits, and offered presentations on such topics as Internet safety at later meetings,” explained Herman, who says he relies on block captains and coordinators to let him know what issues they are interested in.

Herman regularly communicates with residents via a listserv that he created. In addition to providing a means for connecting neighbors with neighbors and law enforcement with residents, the listserv also provides information on recent crimes and other important local happenings. “We have approximately 950 households that participate in the NW program and half are on the listserv,” said Herman. “My approach is to try to be very flexible and open to what community members’ concerns are, and the listserv enables me to do that without feeling like I’m prying into their lives.”

In addition, training opportunities are offered to crime prevention officers practicing within the county, as well. Courses include a physical crime prevention training course, a 40-hour program designed for new law enforcement crime prevention professionals that not only fosters increased knowledge about physical security issues, but also more proactive interaction with the community. In addition, a one-week community crime prevention course complements the physical crime prevention program and instructs attendees on topics related to business and community interests.

Terrorism Awareness & Citizen Corps

Another program with which Herman and NW participants have recently become involved is terrorism awareness training. Though Wisconsin is not considered a likely terrorist target, Herman, along with the Winnebago County Sheriff’s Office, do not take the subject lightly. Subsequently, they have taken measures to keep residents informed on how to protect themselves in the event of terrorist activity. In fact, recently, the state-run Wisconsin Crime Prevention Association was awarded a grant from the Office of Justice Assistance, via the U.S. Department of Justice, to develop a state-wide terrorism awareness program.

“While we haven’t received any grants on the local level, the Wisconsin Crime Prevention Association did receive a two-year Homeland Security grant to develop terrorism awareness for the state of Wisconsin,” explained Herman. “During the first year, a terrorism awareness curriculum was developed. This year, we will host two training sessions, which 50 officers will attend.”

Herman is working to bolster interest in terrorism awareness across the county and hopes to have increasing numbers of NW participants attend training sessions. He believes his participation with the state Citizen Corps council will better enable him to accomplish this goal. “I was asked by the Governor’s Office to participate on the program planning committee of the council, and we will soon be planning our first Citizen Corps event,” said Herman, who said he will work towards creating locally-based initiatives, including implementing a training manual for the local Citizen Corps group and implementing CERT (Community Emergency Response Team) training, as well as a Volunteers in Police Service program in various locations throughout Winnebago County.

Extending the Reach of NW

Roughly eight years ago, the county established another NW-based program called Marina Watch, which was established to help protect the nine marinas located within the county. “We have a lot of people who come in from Milwaukee and Chicago and dock their boats for weeks at a time at our marinas,” explained Herman. “The Marina Watch has created to heighten awareness of those who work on or live nearby the marinas as a way to bring these people together and reduce crime.”

Herman also works with several different crime prevention associations throughout the state via his role as president of the Wisconsin Crime Prevention Association. In this position, he and other crime prevention officers have been able to pool their resources and work collectively on a variety of initiatives and programs. “By putting all of our resources together, we are able to better serve our communities and promote safety state-wide,” said Herman. Such resources include a crime prevention newsletter, which is distributed throughout communities and lists crime prevention tips, crimes that have occurred, and additional local information, and a cable access television show produced by law enforcement, which airs in all of northeastern Wisconsin.

As a result of NW and its efforts to fortify crime prevention, the county has experienced great success. Ironically, however, this very success has worked against as an obstacle, to some degree. “Because we do enjoy such low crime rates, many residents don’t feel any need to get involved, so one of my biggest challenges is motivating people to volunteer,” said Herman. “No matter where you are, there tends to be apathy towards crime prevention when things seem to be going so well. Unfortunately, residents often get motivated to get involved only if they have been a victim of a crime or had something traumatic happen. Otherwise, crime prevention is likely an afterthought, which makes my job a bit more challenging.”

In spite of the challenges he faces, however, Herman is optimistic about recruiting new NW members and boosting participation across the county.