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Eyes and ears

On a cold night in January, a young woman knocked on Steve and Cherie Williams’ door and asked to use the phone because she was having car trouble. Cherie didn’t hesitate to help. When she returned with the phone, the woman and two masked gunmen Tasered Cherie and forced their way into the home. Steven Williams heard the commotion from the back of the house and came charging to his wife’s rescue. In the ensuing minutes, the assailants held Steven at gunpoint while they ransacked the house, taking $5,000 in cash and jewelry.Four months later, the police have nearly exhausted their leads. The Williams are now offering a $5,000 reward to anyone who can provide information about their case.”We want closure and justice,” Steven Williams said. “There have been over 20 home invasions (in Colorado Springs) in 20 weeks, and we want to discourage people from doing it.”Williams said he and his family have become personal security evangelists. He wants to raise awareness so others are prepared and can prevent similar situations.El Paso County Sheriff’s Department reports the crime rate in the immediate Falcon area has increased sharply over the past few years. In 2004, the sheriff’s department took 15 cases in the area. Last year, they had 328. Of those cases in 2007, 161 cases included burglary, theft and vandalism. Only one was a report of a suspicious person.Increasing crime in the area, coupled with the sheriff’s department’s thinly stretched resources – with 10 patrol officers on duty for the entire county – puts responsibility on residents to increase the level of community safety.

I used to think this is such a calm place. Nothing ever happens in this neighborhood.– Steven Williams
“We need neighbors to serve as the eyes and ears of the sheriff’s department,” Katie Polivan, crime prevention coordinator, said. People need to be aware of suspicious activity and call the non-emergency number to report anything that raises a red flag, she said. Polivan provides training meetings to communities seeking to increase public safety by encouraging greater awareness. Neighborhood Watch groups are the best way to get the word out, Polivan said.Neighborhood Watch programs promote three key steps to a safer community: 1) Increasing awareness of what is happening in the neighborhood, 2) communicating suspicious behavior to the sheriff’s department, 3) increasing physical security of your home and neighborhood.The steps are proven to work, Polivan said. According to a 10-year study, crime rates in communities participating in Neighborhood Watch were 66 percent less than neighborhoods without a program. “Criminals perceive it as a place where neighbors know each other and are ready to call the police to report suspicious activity,” he said.Williams said he believes Neighborhood Watch could have helped his family. “I don’t know if it would have prevented (the invasion), but it would have helped catch them.” On the night of the attack, several neighbors noticed a young woman walking up and down the street. One neighbor saw her looking in car windows as he left to run an errand. He was surprised that in the bitter cold she was still out when he returned an hour later.A Pampered Chef party was going on at another neighbor’s house. “When does that happen?” Williams exclaimed. Yet, no one noticed enough detail or thought to call the police, he said.Williams said after the attack on his home, he is more aware of suspicious or unusual activity on his street. “I used to think this is such a calm place. Nothing ever happens in this neighborhood,” he said.Now, he has made his house a harder target. Following suggestions from the sheriff’s department, Williams has improved the outside lighting and installed compact fluorescent bulbs so he can leave the lights on all night. He also installed a peephole in his door for visibility to the front porch.The family also has a plan. “We have fire and tornado drills, but no one ever thinks to plan for this type of emergency,” Williams said. Today, each family member has a job – call 911, set off the alarm system or find a place to hide.Tom Berens is another Woodmen Hills resident committed to getting the word out about community safety. After a home invasion on his block in December, Berens contacted the sheriff’s department and established a neighborhood watch program in Woodmen Hills.Starting in January, Berens held community meetings and began organizing the neighborhood into districts and enlisting volunteers to build a network of citizens committed to preventing crime.”The response has been very good,” Berens said. Filing and block captains are still canvassing Woodmen Hills with pamphlets and information encouraging neighbors to network with each other. After only five months, the program is approaching Berens’ goal of 50 percent participation.Berens said the Woodmen Hills’ watch program has already deterred crime. Responding to a recent rash of broken car windows, Berens mobilized Neighborhood Watch. He alerted watch captains and called for “Operation: Lights On,” encouraging neighbors to leave their porch lights on through the night.”Last I heard, the sheriff’s department arrested four young men connected to the vandalism,” Berens said.His next big push is to get neighbors together for “National Night Out” on Aug. 5. The program, in its 25th year nationwide, is designed to heighten crime prevention awareness, generate support for anti-crime programs such as Neighborhood Watch and build rapport between the community and law enforcement.”Night Out “encourages communities to come together for block parties, cookouts, visits from the sheriff departments, parades and contests.”I would love to see Woodmen Hills shut down for the night,” Berens said. He said his block is planning to bring their grills out to the front yard for a potluck barbecue.

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