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Local volunteers prefer vigilance to violence

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Posted: Saturday, April 14, 2012 12:00 am | Updated: 9:14 am, Sat Apr 21, 2012.

The shooting death of 17-year-old Florida resident Trayvon Martin at the hands of Neighborhood Watch volunteer George Zimmerman has created a renewed interest in the organization.

Zimmerman says he shot the teen in self-defense after Martin began acting erratically. However, Zimmerman faces second-degree murder charges, and his duties as a Neighborhood Watch volunteer have been called into question.

Across the country, the program is used to help police departments monitor cities to keep down crime and keep citizens safe.

In Lodi, the 25-year-old Neighborhood Watch program now sports more than 150 active groups all across the city.

But what do those who participate in Neighborhood Watch do? And like Zimmerman, do they carry weapons or confront suspicious persons?

According to Jeanie Biskup of the Lodi Police Department, the police work directly with those individuals involved in Neighborhood Watch, particularly when it comes to specific problems areas.

Biskup said people who are part of Neighborhood Watch are trained on how to make police reports and when to call the police department if they see or hear something suspicious near their home.

Neighborhood Watch volunteers are also trained in disaster response, and they work with the department's Special Investigation Unit when there is possible drug activity occurring in a neighborhood, Biskup added.

But what about carrying weapons?

According to Biskup, with proper training, Neighborhood Watch volunteers could carry pepper spray, but the police department strongly advocates that they instead have a cellphone handy at all times.

They do not recommend carrying weapons, as Zimmerman allegedly did when he approached and then shot Martin.

Volunteers are not encouraged to run out and confront people, Biskup added, because it is unsafe.

"We encourage people to be good observers, to have good eyes and good ears and to call us," she said. "Let us check it out. When you see something, call us and let us knock on the door and make sure everything is OK."

In Galt, 30 to 40 groups of neighbors keep an eye out on areas spanning 12 to 20 homes. Volunteers have created a strong community connection so that there is constant chatter between neighbors about things seen or maybe heard that should be on their radar, like broken car windows or possible gang activity.

According to TJ Guidotti, the Galt Police Department Neighborhood Watch program coordinator, city crime has been reduced by 56 percent in the last five years thanks in large part to Galt citizens keeping their ears and eyes open for possible crime.

"The drop can really be attributed to neighbors working with each other and working with (the Galt Police Department)," he said. "It is that age-old concept of 'community good' where working with others helps (to prevent) problems from coming right back."

For Lodi mayor and Neighborhood Watch volunteer JoAnne Mounce, the program has been extremely helpful in dealing with gang-related issues near her home on the Eastside.

Mounce joined the program back in the early 1990s and said she used to go door-to-door to connect with her neighbors, who also eventually joined the program.

Mounce and those involved in Neighborhood Watch in her neighborhood once were able to force a property owner to sell a home after Mounce and her neighbors filed litigation against him.

The reason? The home was a bevy of gang activity, and it was causing crime to rise on her street.

"No matter what condition your neighborhood is in, you can change it with Neighborhood Watch," she said.

Contact reporter Katie Nelson at katien@lodinews.com.

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