PICTURED: Group photo from neighborhood watch meeting. Photo courtesy Ventura Police

by Alex Wilson

Ventura resident Diantha Kelly helped make history on June 2 when her neighborhood held the city’s first police-sponsored neighborhood watch meeting in about 20 years.

Neighborhood watch meeting at The Farm. Photo by Alex Wilson

Kelly lives in a neighborhood known as “The Farm” near Telegraph Road and Saticoy Avenue, and it certainly feels safe. Homes have a contemporary yet retro look and are close together, encouraging community members to get to know each other.

“We love this neighborhood and we want to keep it as safe as possible,” Kelly said about her neighborhood, which was built about four years ago.

But she and her neighbors have heard crime is on the rise in Ventura recently, and an upswing in thefts from cars is one of the issues neighbors have been talking about recently.

“It’s on everybody’s mind. So I think it’s important to do what we can as a neighborhood,” she explained.

Residents as “eyes and ears” of the police

Ventura Police officials are relaunching the city’s neighborhood watch program after it faded away about two decades ago. The program was a victim of budget cuts and also a move towards organizing communities through the social media site Nextdoor, which officials believe has lost some of its effectiveness. Police and neighbors were in agreement that a shift toward meeting in-person could be a better crime prevention strategy than communicating online.

Residents were joined at the meeting by veteran Ventura Police Cpl. Alina Davis and Officer Kaylyne Brittle, who recently joined the force. Davis covered several topics during her talk, held in a small neighborhood park over coffee and cookies.

She said the main message she wanted to impart is that stopping crime before it happens is most effective when there’s a partnership between police and residents. “Crime prevention is all of our duty and responsibility, and if we work together we can accomplish more.”

Davis explained how the department deploys officers across the city and what kinds of crimes get the fastest response. For example, people actively fighting will get immediate attention while a homeless person asleep on a sidewalk or an abandoned car could take longer to respond to, she said. She noted that police can’t be everywhere at once, and that it’s the residents who are the eyes and ears of the department.   

At the end of the meeting, Davis said she was pleased with the turnout and the questions asked by residents. “I think it was great. It’s nice to see people come together over a common goal and see people involved in the community.”

She’s hopeful the group will keep holding neighborhood watch meetings. “I’d like to see them stay together and stay committed to a common goal, which is to prevent crime in their neighborhood and make sure they have a safe place to live and a safe pace for the kids to grow up. I’m just grateful that we’re doing something new and trying something different to bridge that community gap again.” 

Fostering police-community connection

The meeting was hosted by Ventura City Councilmember Jeannette Sanchez-Palacios, whose district encompasses The Farm neighborhood. Part of her goal was to combat the negative image many people have of police, especially in recent years.

“More than anything, I wanted to have that communication and that connection with our officers. Because a lot of times there can be that negative connotation and relationship and I really just want to turn that around,” the councilmember said. “So I feel proud and honored that we pulled this together.” 

Police Chief Darin Schindler made relaunching the neighborhood watch program a department priority, but did not attend the meeting himself because he wanted it to be more about the neighbors and the officers who actually patrol the streets. 

“It just bridges that gap between the community and police department and brings them closer, so we’re working in concert to keep the neighborhoods safer,” he said.

Neighborhood Watch Sign. Photo courtesy Ventura police

Schindler explained that the department had a civilian employee who coordinated a neighborhood watch program about 20 years ago, but that position went away during a round of budget cuts. Advances in technology, including the Nextdoor social media site that’s organized around neighborhoods, were meant to help fill the gap. But Schindler said he learned Nextdoor doesn’t work as well as a traditional neighborhood watch program where residents meet with police in person.

“The idea behind it was good, but over the years, in my opinion, it caused us as a police department to get further removed from the neighborhoods,” he said.

Sometimes misinformation is posted on social media, and police don’t have the ability to comment or interact with neighbors on Nextdoor as much as some people believe, the chief said. “What I found is a lot of people think that police are monitoring it and are more involved. But since we don’t live in these neighborhoods, we don’t actually have the ability to communicate as much as people think. So there’s been a little bit of a disconnect.”

Schindler also pointed out that a link on the police department website allows people to request a meeting with officers to launch a neighborhood watch group. Neighborhoods that agree to take on the effort can ask for street signs warning criminals that they’re entering an area with a neighborhood watch program.

According to Schindler, while crime rates have fallen significantly nationwide since the 1990s, crime is still a big concern for residents. “People are feeling, in general, a little bit more unease about crime and safety. The political environment is very divisive. I think that contributes to it. We’re seeing a big increase in homelessness, and with homelessness we have an increase in vagrancy which is behavior that affects quality-of-life issues and people feeling like their neighborhood isn’t as safe or clean as it used to be.”

Schindler also said meeting with officers in person helps earn the respect of residents, especially in an era where police face increasing criticism and even hostility. “The last couple of years, public safety, especially policing in general, has not been in the best light. What better way than having a couple of officers standing with your neighbors talking about mutual concerns and the things we can do to help.” 

“This is not vigilantes”

One thing Schindler is quick to point out is that neighborhood watch programs are not a replacement for police.

“We’re being really clear. This is not vigilantes,” stated the police chief. “This is not citizens taking the law into their own hands. We don’t want people patrolling their neighborhoods and putting themselves at risk. We don’t want them taking any kind of enforcement action on anything they believe is illegal or suspicious. We just want them to be the eyes and ears.”

Schindler said he’s happy with the success of the relaunch so far.

“The main message is, we care,” he said. “The police department is here to work with the community. We’re better at preventing crime and responding to concerns when we work together. We want to hear from you and what you care about, and the concerns in the neighborhood, and we want to help.”

For more information on the Ventura Police Department’s Neighborhood Watch Program, including resources and how to start one in your neighborhood, contact Emily Graves at egraves@cityofventura.ca.gov, call 805-339-4312 or visit www.cityofventura.ca.gov/1096/Neighborhood-Watch.residents as