Fighting Crime Together

They put up with the almost nightly sound of gunfire.

But when joy riders stole their car from in front of their Bellflower home, and burglars tried to break into the house behind them, Rocky and Pam Collucci decided enough is enough.They called the Lakewood Sheriff's Station for advice and then invited their neighbors to join them in setting up a Neighborhood Watch group.

"We're taking a stand. We're sick and tired of having to peep out the windows," Rocky Collucci said at their recent organizational meeting.

Two dozen residents on Cornuta Avenue, a street of older single-family homes, showed up for that initial meeting, along with two gung-ho block captains from nearby Eucalyptus Avenue, who came to offer moral support.

His block on Eucalyptus had improved so much - after just eight weeks of neighborhood watching - that couples can now come out for evening strolls, Roland Miles boasted.

"The streets are for us. The homes are for us ... and we've got the help we need from these guys," Miles said, referring to the sheriff's deputies.

"They've been very successful on Eucalyptus, and you guys will have the same results," Deputy Harry Bovie told the gathering in the Colluccis' side yard.

"The object of this whole program is to make sure you are never alone, that you speak with the voice of the entire neighborhood," he said.

Bovie, a 20-year sheriff's veteran, has organized about 25 neighborhood, apartment and business watch groups in Bellflower since mid-July.

The city, he said, has a total commitment to the watch concept, which law enforcment experts consider to be a key part of any community's crime-fighting plan.

The "good folks still outnumber the bad folks" in Bellflower, but the problem, in any city, he said, is getting the good folks together - then keeping them together.

He told the Cornuta residents that there are three things they'll need to be successful: a membership roster, a meeting schedule and a "calling tree."

Holding regular meetings, he said, gives everyone a chance to know one another and helps keep a group alive.

Meeting topics, he said, aren't limited to law enforcement or crime. They can be as wide-ranging as the members' interests.

They could invite a real estate agent to come talk about property values, he suggested.

With a calling tree, neighbor No. 1 calls neighbor No. 2, who calls neighbor No. 3, and so on.

Bovie related how one group used such a communications system when a burglar was seen sneaking into a house.

When the burglar came out - clutching a CD player in his arms - a small crowd was waiting to greet him.

He turned around and went back inside and didn't come out until a deputy announced over a loudspeaker that "it's safe for you to come out now."

Bovie gave the Cornuta Avenue residents some instructions - for their own safety:

"Number 1: Don't take any chances. I don't want you folks to do anything illegal. I don't want anybody hurt. I don't want anybody going to jail.

"If you decide to take pictures of anybody, do it from a position of safety.

"If you see some fool out there in the middle of the street setting up a machine gun, call us.''

Bovie, an authority on home security, also told them that outdoor lighting "is critical in keeping crooks at bay."

He also reminded them of what they already knew - that the crime rate in "The Friendly City" began to climb about a year and a half ago.

"It used to be in the mid-'80s you could sell your house and leave ... Now there's no more running," he said.

Their street, he said later, needs what Neighborhood Watch can do for it.

"It has the potential for very rapid deterioration."

A watch group works, he said, only when people are willing to get involved - to look out the window when a car alarm goes off, to call police when they see something suspicious, to sign citizens' arrests forms, and then testify in court if necessary.

"It is not as simple as getting together and talking to each other; there has to be action."

Just putting up Neighborhood Watch signs won't cut it either.

One group that knows what it takes to be successful is in the Eastside section of Long Beach.

"We've had a meeting every other month for 10 years," said LaVerne Stoops, a block captain on Freeman Avenue and a charter member of the group.

She said attendance ranges from a handful to 25 to 30 people.

Has the group had an impact on the neighborhood?

"Oh my, yes!" she responded.

"We've cleaned out some drug sales on one block. It definitely has helped."

What's their secret?

"Networking, keeping together" and watching out for one another.

"If something happens on one block," Stoops said, "we all know about it."