COLUMBIA — Columbia is at risk of becoming a little less watchful than it once was.
Three seats are vacant on the nine-member board that advises and holds training sessions for the city's Neighborhood Watch program. And three of the six current members were supposed to end their terms in September but volunteered to stay until new members can be found.
If you would like to join the Neighborhood Watch board, email email@example.com. People who are interested will be invited to one of the board meetings to learn more about the board and its responsibilities.
The problem might be money. The board was funded by the Columbia Police Department until 2009, when the City of Columbia decided to cut those funds. The funds covered all the expenses that the Neighborhood Watch might incur including training and promotional materials. Now, money to cover those expenses has to be raised through private donations by the volunteer board members.
"From about that time (2009), we've seen a shrink in board members," said Gregory Reed, the president of the board.
The Neighborhood Watch Program was established by the National Sheriffs' Association in 1972, and the Columbia program started in 1976.
"Nobody is better able to spot something that is extraordinary in your own neighborhood than a trained neighborhood watch person," Reed said.
He cites as a cautionary tale last year's case of vandalism and theft at a house on Grant Lane, in which teenage partygoers were accused of causing roughly $300,000 in property loss and damage.
Neighbors later recalled having seen cars come and go at the house, but no one thought of calling the police, Reed said. He speculated that an active neighborhood watch group could have prevented those losses.
Worth the work?
According to a Department of Justice study, Neighborhood Watch programs are associated with reduced crime, and they might help raise people's awareness, lower risks and facilitate law enforcement.
But that study also states that for Neighborhood Watch programs to be successful, they need to have strong implementation.
Each year, the board trains 300 to 400 people in Columbia neighborhoods, according to Reed. When more than half the residents in a block are trained, the block can register itself as an official Neighborhood Watch group, get a block captain and post a Neighborhood Watch sign.
During the one-hour training, police officers for those particular neighborhoods introduce themselves, explain their working hours and describe current crime trends, said Officer Melvin Buckner, the liaison between the board and the Columbia Police Department.
"Those officers will also be available for questions," Reed said. "That's probably the highlight of those trainings: letting citizens have access to the people who are trying to keep them safe."
And at a time when the police department has limited resources, neighborhood watch groups perform an important function in Columbia, Buckner said.
"There are times in this town that there are only eight officers covering the entire city," Buckner said. "Without doubt, we cannot see everything, so we really depend on our neighborhood watch members to be our eyes and ears."
What comes with the vacant board seats
Columbia has around 50 blocks registered as Neighborhood Watch groups. But it's unclear how many of those are currently active, Buckner said.
In September, the board sent out about 1,200 postcards to households listed on the roster. About 300 to 400 of those cards were returned to the post office because the owners had moved, Buckner said.
Without an active board working on follow-ups, little can be done to figure out which groups still exist.
"When the board was fully staffed, they used to keep track of those active watch groups regularly," Buckner said.
In addition to carrying out trainings, the board members also meet the second Monday of every month to discuss the budget and agenda and to prepare for future trainings.
Buckner said that the board could carry out more trainings if the vacancies were filled.
"They definitely need more members," he said.
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