BLOCK WATCH: Recognizing police can’t be everywhere, volunteers across Surrey are empowering their neighbourhoods with information – and it’s resulting in communities that are much tighter-knit
FOURTH IN A SERIES: As news surrounding Surrey’s RCMP dominates headlines, we look at different ways residents are helping make our city safer. Click here to read part three.
SURREY — Cynthia Klassen was frustrated.
In her new South Surrey neighbourhood near the border, thieves were breaking into cars, including hers, on a regular basis.
Things got worse in her community of Douglas when Klassen’s car was broken into again – this time, the crook took the clicker for her garage, which was subsequently broken into as well.
This was four years ago, when she decided to do something about it. She organized a community Block Watch with her neighbour.
“I thought it would be a great way to get the community together and watch each other’s backs,” said Klassen, co-captain of her Block Watch group of about 100 homes.
“The police can’t be everywhere.”
Her neighbours, also frustrated with the prevalence of break-ins to their vehicles, jumped on board when Klassen brought the Block Watch program to their doors.
“Everyone was really excited and thankful that we took it upon ourselves to start something like this in the neighbourhood.”
Klassen recruited more captains in her neighbourhood and today, there are 11 Block Watch groups in her neighbourhood, all working together to make the community safer.
“My goal was to get our whole area full of Block Watch and that’s what’s been happening,” Klassen said. “We’ve become a bigger community.”
She said hosting events like an annual Block Watch barbecue, which gathered all the Block Watch groups from the surrounding areas, has brought the entire neighbourhood together.
“It’s really brought us closer – and that’s what we need.”
And it’s hard to argue with the results.
“Over time, we were seeing less and less of these break-ins,” Klassen said. “So that told me it’s been working.”
From the RCMP’s perspective, Klassen’s neighbourhood is a perfect example of how Block Watch works as a symbiotic relationship – volunteers in the community work with police to make the city safer, said Surrey RCMP Cpl. Scotty Schumann.
“The countless hours and dedication of the Block Watch volunteers helps the Surrey RCMP work towards the goal of safer homes and safe communities,” Schumann said.
“The Surrey RCMP are very thankful for these volunteers and their role in making Surrey an even better place to live.”
Jody Nelson is crime prevention programs co-ordinator for Surrey RCMP District 4 – Cloverdale Port Kells. She says in the three decades it has been active in Surrey, Block Watch has made a huge impact in the community.
“It’s about neighbours watching out for neighbours,” Nelson said. “It is considered to be one of the most successful programs supported by the Surrey RCMP and the City of Surrey…. I’m passionate about it because it works.
“Information is empowering these neighbourhoods.”
How it works
Before a new Block Watch group can be formed, someone needs to step forward and apply to be a captain. After going through some clearance checks, the applicant will be invited to Block Watch training, which is a free two-hour session focused on how to get the rest of the neighbourhood on board.
“We’re pretty much teaching you how to go out and canvas your neighbours, how to go out and get this Block Watch started,” Nelson said.
What’s next? You hit the streets.
“You canvas. You go door to door and let neighbours know you are bringing a Block Watch to the area,” Nelson said.
“All it takes is a commitment to the community and a commitment to observe and report any suspicious activity. And really, that should be something we are all doing anyway.”
Once a captain has canvassed his or her block and has an email distribution list from committed neighbours, the Block Watch program is ready to do its thing – share information about crime and suspicious activity in the area.
The captain then submits the participant list and a map and the Block Watch group becomes active.
Block Watch’s biggest challenge
Because Block Watch’s success is based on the sharing of information, it might be surprising to learn that its biggest challenge is just that – getting information.
Frustratingly for Block Watch and RCMP, residents all too often just won’t pick up the phone.
“I think the biggest challenge is getting people to call in when the crime is occurring, calling in that suspicious activity,” Nelson said.
Why is that? Perhaps residents might think they would be wasting the RCMP’s time by calling in what they may think is a mundane tip.
For example, what if you see someone who looks suspicious but isn’t necessarily doing anything wrong? Maybe you see someone simply hanging around mailboxes or lurking near someone’s garage. Why call that in? It’s not illegal to look shady, after all. Why bother the RCMP with a call like that?
Because it could be a piece to a much larger puzzle.
“Maybe the description you provided matches someone who commits a robbery later that day or assaults someone,” Nelson said. “Now we have a timeline and can piece it all together.”
When in doubt, make that call, Nelson added.
“Above all else, trust your instincts. You get a feeling. If it caused you to pause in your day, then that’s a call you should be making.”
Nelson encourages everyone, regardless of whether or not they are involved with Block Watch, to program the RCMP’s non-emergency number in their phones.
That number is 604-599-0502.
“We’re based on crime stats,” Nelson said. “We don’t know what’s happening in your area unless it’s called in. Observe it and report it.”
More help needed
There are 776 Block Watch groups in Surrey – last year alone, 104 new groups were formed.
But Nelson says in a city as big as Surrey more is needed.
“When I say we have 776 Block Watch groups in Surrey, it’s not enough,” she said. “It’s just not enough.”
To volunteer as a Block Watch captain in your community, visit Blockwatch.com.
Block Watch 101
- The Block Watch Program was started in BC in 1986 in response to the concerns of citizens about crime.
- The program was modeled on a similar project in Seattle, which was credited with helping to reduce residential break and enters by up to 60 per cent.
- Block Watch member programs operate under the mandate of the Block Watch Society.
- In 1993, the Block Watch Society was officially registered as a non-profit society.
- Block Watch operates through grants from the Ministry of Justice and donations.
NEXT WEEK: In Part 5 of our series, Amy Reid looks at how some communities are using Facebook to communicate with each other about criminal activity in their area.