Softly, softly fighting crime

2008-02-26 00:00

Neighbourhood watches and community policing groups can be intimidating, with too much emphasis on the watching and policing and not enough on the neighbourhood or the community. So it is reassuring to find one with a gentler image. This time, those who patrol are not all gung-ho men in khaki; many are women and some are in their 80s.

However, that does not mean that the Eridene Estate Neighbourhood Watch in Howick is not effective. In the five years of its existence, it has dealt with 45 incidents, mostly minor, such as theft from cars. “We’re not confrontational in any way at all, but we aim to be the eyes and ears of the police and community,” says founder and organiser Pat Bagnall.

It all began when Pat and Rob Bagnall moved into the area from Melmoth in 2002. They were concerned to find people loitering in the streets around them, and one day when they were at home, a neighbour’s house was broken into.

“I thought, should we wait for this to happen to us, or should we start something, prevention being better than cure,” says Pat Bagnall. “Often the hardest thing is to get started, and we had people saying that they had never met others who lived in the same street.

“The better we know one another, the better we can help one another. And if we know the people in a certain house, we know if something doesn’t look right when we’re on patrol,” she says. And patrol they do, both during the day and at night. On the advice of the police the patrols are done in cars, and in pairs.

“Patrol members range in age from mid-20s to 80s,” says Bagnall. “If they see anything suspicious, they don’t get out of the car, but they phone the police, and they notify me.” In what is generally a safe area, there are also often people out walking — with their dogs, or just going for a stroll. Many residents are elderly, and it is important for them to feel secure. As the Neighbourhood Watch has become more established, they too report anything they see.

The patrols report in, even if nothing has happened on their watch, other than a drive around the neighbourhood.

“That way, we know they went out,” explains Bagnall. What time they go, and for how long, is up to the individuals. Their names come up on the roster about once a month, with women taking most of the daytime slots, and men the night. When something does happen, as when two cars were stolen three years ago at Christmas time, extra patrols may well be put in place for a couple of weeks. Regular communication with members means everyone is kept in the loop, and there is a considerable collective effort to keep the Watch running smoothly.

One particularly effective — and delightfully simple — way of helping to keep people safe is to hang small notices below the Neighbourhood Watch signs. These say “Criminal Activity”, and are padlocked to the main board when anything suspicious has been reported. And as people drive past, they are made that little bit more aware.

Above all, the Eridene Watch has become a social phenomenon. Regular meetings get around 50 members and usually another 20 or 30 have sent their apologies. “It’s good to know the interest is still there, and so we ask for apologies,” say the Bagnalls, who know plenty of neighbourhood watches start enthusiastically, but flop as the interest wanes. “It’s a lot of work,” says Pat. “But we have a good team of women who deliver reports to our members house to house. And I have a good husband who takes on a lot!”

The Bagnalls once went along to another, similar group in an area five or six times the size of theirs and found only 15 people. The Eridene Watch meetings are social events, with people bringing along drinks and snacks. Once again, Pat Bagnall says: “It’s all about the community.”

They keep a sharp eye on more than just potential criminal activity — they are prepared to deal with municipal matters and watch out for anyone who might be ill, or need help. Initially, those in secure complexes were not on the list to be recruited — it was thought they would not want to be. But several have asked to join as they want to be a part of a community which is more than just a security network.

After the fires last winter which burnt right to the edge of the Eridene area, Bagnall sent out a note to the members to suggest they do something to help the victims — and from 110 member households, they raised three vehicle loads of clothes and blankets to take to the Red Cross.

The Watch has good relations with the local police — they come to meetings when they can and have assisted with setting up meetings with local domestic workers, explaining what is being done, and also how to keep themselves safe, both at work and at home.

And again, it all comes down to community spirit. The first year the Watch was in existence, Pat baked a batch of muffins at Christmas and took them round to the local police station as a token of appreciation for their help. Now there are 14 bakers producing home-made goodies for the Christmas thank-you. The Bagnalls were told by the local superintendent that this was a first. Criticism is more common than thanks.

It’s a softly, softly approach — maybe that is why it works so well.

• To contact the Eridene Neighbourhood Watch, e-mail eenw@telkomsa.net

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