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On patrol for the terrorist next door

Critics question whether expanding the Neighborhood Watch program would be wise or effective.

By MARY JACOBY, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published April 8, 2002


WASHINGTON -- Patrolling the urban residential streets of the Capitol Hill neighborhood one evening, the local citizens crime watch encountered the following:

A panhandler. Two young women entering a townhouse. A strange man singing loudly. FBI agents in black sport utility vehicles protecting the home of Attorney General John Ashcroft.

But no terrorists.

"I don't know how we'd ID anybody like that," Neighborhood Watch member Larry Molumby, a 31-year resident of Capitol Hill, said as his wife noted the location of a burned-out street lamp.

Molumby was referring to his neighbor the attorney general's announcement last month of an expansion of the 30-year-old Neighborhood Watch crime-prevention program. Ashcroft wants citizens to look out for terrorists along with potential burglars and car thieves.

"In the great tradition of American volunteerism, through the Neighborhood Watch program we will weave a seamless web of prevention of terrorism that brings together citizens and law enforcement," Ashcroft said at a March 6 news conference.

"While the brave men and women in our military work to defeat terrorism overseas, we have the opportunity to join with law enforcement officials at home to guard against potential enemies," he said.

To the average citizen, Ashcroft added: "Your country has never needed you more."

To critics, Ashcroft's exhortation harkens back to Communist-era citizen-on-citizen spy networks.

"By asking neighborhood groups to report on people who are 'unfamiliar' or who act in ways that are 'suspicious' or 'not normal,' our government is unconstructively fear-mongering and fueling the already rampant ethnic and religious scapegoating," American Civil Liberties Union president Nadine Strossen said in a statement.

But supporters say having neighborhood groups keep an eye out for strangers is a long-accepted law enforcement strategy. Given the stakes involved in terrorism, they say, it makes sense to ask people who are already serving as eyes and ears to do a bit more.

"I think we could" spot a terrorist, said Sue Brooks of Dunedin, president of the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office crime watch program for the northern part of the county.

"You just don't know. Maybe if you saw someone flying over and they were letting something out, like a crop duster may do," Brooks said.

Butch Kinerney, a spokesman for the U.S. Geological Survey, grew up in the same Maryland suburb of Washington where the hijackers of the American Airlines flight that crashed into the Pentagon lived. His sister belongs to the gym where they worked out.

"You have to remember, the Sept. 11 terrorists lived among us," said Kinerney, who made Ashcroft an honorary member of the watch group he organized in Loudoun County, Va.

Kinerney met the attorney general last month when he came to a local high school for an event to kick off the expanded program. After an article about the visit and Kinerney's appearance in the Loudoun Times-Mirror newspaper, a woman wrote to the editor:

"How will I know when I am looking at a potential terrorist? Would anything have alerted me to Timothy McVeigh? . . . There are a lot of questions that need to be answered before I will feel safer with citizen patrols in polo shirts spying on their neighbors."

Said Kinerney: "We're not vigilantes."

The Loudoun County Sheriff's Office has told watch group members to look for things like rental trucks that seem abandoned or cars with out-of-state license plates parked for a long time in one place.

Patrolling the streets of Capitol Hill with his wife and three neighbors Wednesday night, Molumby said he wasn't offended by Ashcroft's initiative. Just puzzled. "We've seen no indication that it's organized in any way," Molumby said.

In fact, other than Ashcroft's initial announcement, there seems to be a certain reluctance to link an expanded Neighborhood Watch directly to the fight against terrorism.

Former Tonight Show co-host Ed McMahon recorded several public service announcements to encourage new watch groups and appeared with Ashcroft at his announcement last month. But the TV ads make no direct mention of fighting terrorism, saying only, "It's just one of the ways you can help make America stronger."

The ads were funded by the nonprofit National Crime Prevention Council. Before Sept. 11, the council had planned to spend part of a $2.5-million Justice Department grant on public service announcements aimed at child care givers.

But when the department made Neighborhood Watch a priority, the council postponed the child care ads and spent the money instead on the McMahon spots, said Todd Post, the council's media coordinator.

In addition, the Justice Department recently gave the National Sheriffs' Association, which oversees Neighborhood Watch, $1.9-million to promote the program.

Ashcroft said he would like to see the number of communities with Neighborhood Watch programs double, to 15,000.

There are 196 active crime watches in St. Petersburg, with 25 formed after Sept. 11, said Rick Stelljes, a spokesman for the St. Petersburg Police Department.

One potential role for Neighborhood Watch groups is helping neighbors use common sense in reacting to events like last fall's anthrax mail attacks, said Lori Buck, public education coordinator for Pinellas County Emergency Communications.

At a time when politicians and members of the media were receiving letters containing the deadly bacteria, citizens deluged the Pinellas County 911 service with calls about suspicious events, Buck said.

One woman thought there was anthrax on a Cornish hen she had taken from the freezer. It turned out to be frost. Others panicked when packages arrived on their door step, then they would remember it was something they ordered, Buck said.

Brooks, the watch coordinator for the Glynwood Highlands neighborhood in Dunedin, said she would be willing to help a neighbor decide if a package was suspicious enough to call 911. She said she worries false alarms will stretch law enforcement agencies thin in times of crisis.

"We could open it and say: 'Oh, here's a little teddy bear. Did you order this?' Because it's mostly the elderly. They're scared. And they're not using common sense," Brooks said.

However, in a sign of the confusion surrounding the issue, Brooks said she has not been given any guidance about whether she should respond to such events.

Meanwhile, Lt. Carol Rasor, Pinellas County Sheriff's Office community services division commander, said it would not be safe for citizens to check out potential anthrax mailings.

"However, we would use the watch groups to communicate any findings," she said.

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