Volunteers sought to make their communities safer

  • JOHN BURNETT/Tribune-Herald Bobbye St. Ambrogio, left, Hawaii County Neighborhood Watch coordinator, and Hawaii Police Department Lt. William Derr, Hilo Community Policing Section commander, pose March 27 outside the Tribune-Herald's office.

Wanted: People committed to making their neighborhoods and communities safer and better places to live.

Hawaii Police Department’s Community Policing Division and Hawaii Island’s Neighborhood Watch organization are seeking volunteers.

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“Our basic premise is helping the Hawaii Police Department address the crime issue, 24/7,” Bobbye St. Ambrogio, the island’s Neighborhood Watch coordinator, recently told the Tribune-Herald.

St. Ambrogio knows about addressing crime. She’s a retired chief from the sheriff’s department in Bergen County, N.J. — the most populous county in the U.S., directly across the Hudson River from New York City.

“I was very much involved in community policing at the time,” St. Ambrogio said. “It’s my job to be the liaison between the Neighborhood Watches and Community Policing. Hopefully, each Neighborhood Watch is assigned a community policing officer who helps project the image of what police is all about and how, if assistance is needed, the group should call the police department. We have over 200 registered Neighborhood Watch groups on this island — and I really try to get to see everybody. I have made a lot of friends with all of these people, who are devoted to this program. Certainly, they are aware that the program teaches neighbors helping neighbors. ‘See something, hear something, say something.’ These are phrases that we use to encourage people to get out there and pay attention to their surroundings.

“It really is an offshoot of the old Kumiai, because that was the original concept of Neighborhood Watch. It took a whole neighborhood to raise the children in the neighborhood. And everyone looked out for each other and was concerned about each other. … And not that they were being nosy. But this was part of life that came from living in the plantation era. There are still a few of them around. The Neighborhood Watch is really an extension of that.”

Police Lt. William Derr, Hilo Community Policing Section commander, described Neighborhood Watch as “community members getting together and looking out for each other, taking responsibility for their neighborhoods and doing what they can to improve the quality of life in their neighborhood.”

“This morning, we had a Neighborhood Watch meeting with a group that live on a cul-de-sac,” Derr said. “It was really inspiring because it was a close-knit community. Everybody knew each other. They call each other on the phone and send emails all the time, just talking about what’s happening in their neighborhood, like a strange car just drove on the cul-de-sac. They all know what cars are supposed to be on the cul-de-sac, who lives there, so they can identify and spot something that’s out of the ordinary. And then, they share that information with their neighbors. So if, God forbid, somebody’s house is broken in a week later, they can say, ‘You know that strange car that we saw. Maybe that’s information we should give to the police to help with their investigation.’ We try to foster that communication. We give the Neighborhood Watch groups information, suggestion, tips on what they should do. And, in turn, they give us information and share things we can use. So it’s a win-win situation.”

Neighborhood Watch is “not limited to crime prevention,” Derr added.

“One of the things that came up this morning was an elderly person living on their own in that neighborhood,” he said. “And the neighbors would take turns going to visit with that individual to make sure they’re doing good, bring lunch or bring dinner to that person. So it’s about crime prevention, but it’s much more than that. It’s really about an extension of the neighbors helping neighbors concept.”

“It’s also about neighbors helping neighbors in the event of a disaster,” St. Ambrogio added. “If there is some sort of situation where their neighborhood is separated from the rest of the area, they have to be able to take care of themselves. So we encourage members of the Neighborhood Watch group to map their communities, which is a federal program, ‘Map Your Community,’ which is run by the National Sheriffs Association and the Department of Justice.”

She said part of a successful Neighborhood Watch group is identifying the strengths of its community so it can use those assets in a time of crisis.

“Who’s a practicing doctor? Who’s a retired nurse? Who has a construction business that has heavy-duty machinery? Who can run a chainsaw? Who can cook? Who would be willing to set up a meeting area where everybody can come to their home?” St. Ambrogio said. “That’s also part of the message that Civil Defense is putting out there about being prepared. We encourage members of our community to do things that would help the community in the event of something like that, such as taking CPR at the hospital, such as learning about ham radio. That way, they can help their community, too.”

Neighborhood Watch and Community Policing have a symbiotic relationship Derr said “has to do with developing closer interactions with the community.”

“In the past, there was the beat cop who walked around and talked to every store owner,” he noted. “We’re trying to do the same thing here in Hilo, because we have foot patrol, we have bicycle patrol, where we’re trying to get back to that type of interaction. We’ll go make contact with those Neighborhood Watch groups and talk story, give them ideas and things to think about. And they, in turn, will help us by doing the same thing. And they’ll bring to us the concerns of the community, and we can problem solve together.”

A recent success story involves Leilani Estates, it’s community association and neighborhood watch, in getting squatters out of homes that had been either abandoned, foreclosed on or both in the wake of last year’s eruption of Kilauea volcano that hit the lower Puna subdivision particularly hard.

Police Lt. Kenneth Quiocho, who was Puna Patrol Division commander at the time and now occupies the same position in Hilo, praised the Leilani Community Association and Neighborhood Watch for “taking a proactive approach to what was going on in the neighborhood.”

Although police here often work with only eight officers per shift to patrol areas larger than Oahu, ordinary citizens now have more tools than ever at their disposal to help police prevent crime and apprehend suspects once crime does occur.

“We’re in an age of technology,” Derr said. “It really helps the neighborhood watches, because they can email. They can call each other. They can text each other. They can take pictures of a suspicious car.

“They can, and do use technology to their benefit.”

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For more information, call St. Ambrogio at 964-2266, Derr at 961-2350, or visit the Hawaii Police Department’s website at https://www.hawaiipolice.com/community/neighborhood-watch.

Email John Burnett at jburnett@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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