A spate of suspicious fires. A meeting with fire and law enforcement. Then: nothing. A watch group that officials suggested just never got off the ground.
By JAY CRIDLIN
Published September 3, 2004
BRANDON - Back in May, a rash of arsons in Brandon's Hillside subdivision drew about 80 residents to a public meeting with fire and law enforcement officials.
The best thing folks could do to stay safe, the officials said, would be to form a neighborhood watch group. Any suspicious activity on Forest Hills Drive - from unfamiliar cars to people out late at night - should be reported to police.
In the months since the meeting, another blaze ripped through yet another home, bringing the number of suspicious fires to six. Fire marshal's investigators hoped to make a break in the case this week.
But what happened to the idea of forming a Hillside neighborhood watch?
"Nothing happened," said Tamra Lorenzo, who lives next to a torched house on Forest Hills Drive. "We have no idea what to do."
The obstacles Forest Hills Drive residents have encountered are common for residents across Hillsborough County when forming neighborhood watch groups. Many stall before they even get off the ground, because of lack of interest, time and energy.
"The most difficult part of a neighborhood watch program is getting it started," said Hillsborough County Sheriff's Deputy Ben Tillis, who coordinates watch programs.
There are about 400 neighborhood watch groups in unincorporated Hillsborough County, each designed to act as sentinels for the Sheriff's Office, passing along descriptions and details of suspicious incidents. Many watch groups are considered part of a neighborhood or homeowners' association; others are formed in response to a rash of crime.
"All it does is increase vigilance, and that's all we really want to do," said Ray Yeakley, a spokesman for Hillsborough Fire Rescue, which advised Hillside residents to form a watch group. "It becomes a deterrent."
The sheriff's community relations office has several deputies willing to provide information on starting a watch group, and the sheriff's Web site has a downloadable neighborhood watch introduction packet with all the necessary forms and information.
But that's often as far as residents are willing to go.
Starting a watch group can be a months-long process requiring significant time and energy. Watch group volunteers must canvass the neighborhood for signatures, attract residents to a series of meetings with sheriff's deputies, coordinate telephone chains and wait for approval from county staff to install neighborhood watch signs on their streets. Only then may they act as liaisons between the community and the Sheriff's Office.
"It takes time to get that stuff rolling," said Carol Guthrie, president of a small neighborhood watch group near Kingsway Road and Lenna Avenue in Seffner. "That's why people don't hurry to do it."
After two years, one of the county's largest watch groups, the Alafia River Watch in Riverview, has yet to fully gel, thanks to dwindling interest among residents.
"As we started to put things together and it started to work, then we didn't see people anymore," said David Cooley, the group's director. "There's a handful of people, three or four or five of us, that do all the work."
There is no neighborhood association in the Hillside Subdivision, a collection of about 300 homes on more than a dozen streets and cul-de-sacs between Kingsway Road and Seffner Valrico Road. Residents there have been left largely to their own devices.
"I think we thought someone would kind of lead us through the process," Lorenzo said. "Maybe someone should have taken the initiative, but I think we kind of expected someone who knew what they were doing to tell us, "Okay, this is what you need to do first.' "
Tillis said a handful of residents expressed interest in a watch group at the May meeting. He passed out a handful of fliers and business cards, but he received no follow-up calls until after the most recent fire on July 23.
Since then, Tillis has met with only one resident to discuss forming a watch group. Another meeting was postponed by Hurricane Charley, he said.
This, Lorenzo says, is news to her.
"Several of us on that block would have attended that meeting if we had known anything about it," she said. "We've all spoken about this type of thing. It's a little frustrating."
Tillis said he believes Hillside will ultimately form a watch group, but he predicts it will be difficult to sustain interest once a suspect is in custody.
"You have some groups, after two or three years, they just start falling apart," he said. "A lot of times, it's difficult to rekindle any interest - "Why should I be involved? We don't have a problem.' "
That's exactly what happened with the Alafia River Watch, which represents about 1,000 homeowners along the Alafia River from Lithia Pinecrest Road to Tampa Bay.
"The hardest thing about getting it going is keeping the interest up," Cooley said. "When people have an issue that they want addressed, they have an interest. When that issue has been addressed and taken care of, they don't have an interest anymore.
"Until," he adds, "the next time somebody steals something from their dock."
Tillis said law enforcement officials have tried to make neighborhood watch groups more appealing by giving them more autonomy. The Sheriff's Office recently put out a call for volunteer board members for the Hillsborough County Neighborhood Watch Association.
And earlier this year, Gov. Jeb Bush signed a law making it a crime to harass neighborhood watch officials. On Aug. 23, a Hillsborough County judge sentenced the first person to be charged with such a crime to nearly a year in county jail.
"The new neighborhood watch law that came out is helping us quite a bit," said David West, president of one of the area's most successful watch groups, the North Tampa Community Crime Watch and Civic Association Inc. Everyone really stood up and took notice of the conviction, West said.
Despite the hard work, Seffner resident Guthrie is glad her neighborhood formed a watch group.
"It's going to take a community working together to stop (crime)," she said. "One or two people can't do it."