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Keeping an Eye Out

Burke Centre encourages neighborhood watch programs.

For the residents of some neighborhoods, summer means not only the opening of pools and the sound of lawnmowers, but also spray paint on the sidewalk and slashed tires.

At Burke Centre, graffiti and vandalism always increase slightly with the onset of warm weather and school closing, said Jeannie Winslow, administration and communication director at the Burke Centre Conservancy.

But this past summer was an exception in Burke Centre, Winslow said, with the 1,700-acre neighborhood experiencing a rash of graffiti along with more typical summer vandalism acts such as furniture thrown into swimming pools. The Burke Centre Web site reported a swastika spray-painted onto a pathway and foul language spray-painted onto a sidewalk, as well as pieces removed from the "Waters Edge" sign. Other acts of vandalism in August and September included slashed tires, cars broken into, and vandalism at community pools.

"It seemed like they stepped-up vandalism in the community," said Winslow. During the summer, she said, residents began calling and asking her about the heightened vandalism rate.

"What we’re hoping to do is to help," said Winslow. "I don’t know that [neighborhood watch] can stop it completely, but it is a deterrent. In my experience, neighborhood watch is a proven and effective tool for preventing crime in communities."

FAIRFAX COUNTY is home to over 850 neighborhood watch programs, with more than 350,000 participating members.

Winslow is trying to encourage residents to form a neighborhood watch program in Burke Centre. Neighborhood watch is an effective way to deter crime, she said.

According to 2004 crime statistics from the Virginia State Police, 27,883 burglaries were reported that year.

Property crimes are the most common in the area, said Fairfax County crime prevention officer Staci Richards of the West Springfield District Station. This includes vandalism and larceny, usually from unlocked vehicles or open garages, she said.

"These can be prevented," she said. "If the garage doors are open, it's like inviting the criminal to come in and take stuff out of the garage."

But starting a neighborhood watch program has been slow going so far, said Winslow. When the Conservancy organized a training session for neighborhood watch programs in September, said Winslow, only two people showed up.

"Summer's over, so people are not focusing as much on the [vandalism] issue right now," she said. According to Richards, vandalism does decrease with the start of the school year and cooler weather.

"If we have two people who want to start a neighborhood watch program, we will go out [to train them]," said Richards. "It obviously works better if we have more involved, but there's no set number."

However, a neighborhood of Burke Centre's size needs more than two people to make a neighborhood watch program work, said Conservancy community services coordinator Janette Baxley.

"We have a lot of active residents but nobody seems too interested in neighborhood watch," said Baxley. "We’re the ones who get the complaints, and we're trying to help the community."

To encourage people to become involved, said Winslow, the Conservancy is advertising neighborhood watch information on its Web site and monthly newsletter, The Conservator. Marci Reed, a representative of the Citizen's Advisory Committee, writes a monthly article on neighborhood watch for The Conservator.

On Tuesday, Oct. 18, police officers came to the Burke Centre Conservancy monthly meeting to discuss neighborhood watch programs. The meeting had a larger turnout than the training session, with about 10 residents and Conservancy staffers in attendance.

"We really want Burke to be an active part [of the station]," said crime prevention officer Doug Coulter of the West Springfield District Station. Altogether, he said, the Fairfax County Police Department fields between 2,500 and 3,500 calls per day. The West Springfield District covers a broad section of lower Fairfax County, but the minimum number of officers on a single shift is nine, he said.

"I think we can be a little more effective by partnering up with communities, and that’s what neighborhood watch is all about," said Coulter.

Several vandalism cases in Burke Centre remain unsolved, said West Springfield District Station Capt. Jack Hurlock, but the police have had some notable successes with would-be vandals in the area. An officer stopped a young person from egging a house, he said, and on another occasion, officers conducting surveillance caught two out-of-town individuals trying to steal from a pool's soda machine and were able to arrest them.

Burke Centre resident Pat Crepeau said she wanted to know about gang-related crimes. Fairfax County Police "aggressively" pursue gang problems and have made progress to that end, said Coulter. In Annandale, he said, gang-related graffiti led to the arrest of a gang member.

Sam DiBartolo, a trustee of the Burke Centre Conservancy, asked about the effectiveness of streetlights in preventing crime.

"Criminals are generally cowards," said Coulter. "Generally, they don’t want to be seen." But citizens must be careful to avoid excessive lighting in public places that would encourage people to gather there at night, he said.

Citizens can take part in three different types of neighborhood watch, said Richards: driving patrol, foot patrol and "window watching."

"People that are home during the day could be eyes in the community," she said. These people may not be able to walk or drive around, but if they see suspicious people or vehicles in their neighborhood, they could alert police. Passive watchers may remain anonymous when they call police, she said.

In all forms of neighborhood watch, said Richards, the most important thing to do is "observe, record and report."

"We never want them to challenge or confront anybody," she said. "We just want them to observe things in their neighborhood." Citizens should always carry a pad of paper and pen during their patrols in order to record accurate descriptions of cars or suspicious vehicles.

"We try to encourage everybody to go off their instincts," said Richards. "Usually, if people think something doesn't belong in their neighborhood, it doesn't. But usually people second-guess themselves, and say, 'Well, maybe somebody already called it in.'" It is better for the police to hear of a suspicious person twice than not at all, said Richards.

Police can also come to citizens’ houses and write up a safety evaluation with suggestions on how to make the residence more secure, said Coulter. The suggested fixes are typically basic and affordable, he said.

"I would rather see 40 cents or $4 spent, to prevent a burglary that could cost thousands of dollars," he said.