LA GRANDE — A series of reported armed robberies late last year is spurring north La Grande residents to action.
A group of citizens is launching a program designed to increase the safety and sense of community in north La Grande — the Northside LG Neighborhood Watch.
“We had been thinking of doing this before, and the robberies gave us the kick we needed to move forward,” said Liz Meyer, who is working to start the Northside LG Neighborhood Watch program with the help of her husband, Grant.
The Meyers are taking this step after four alleged armed robberies were reported in the La Grande-Island City area between Nov. 26 and Dec. 4, 2017. Three of the reported robberies occurred in north La Grande in the vicinity of Spruce and Greenwood streets. A fourth took place at Little Caesars Pizza on Walton Road in Island City. Nobody was injured in any of the reported evening robberies.
La Grande Police Chief Brian Harvey is excited about the Neighborhood Watch proposed program.
“It has huge potential,” he said. “It will be very beneficial.”
Lt. Gary Bell of the La Grande Police Department is also enthused about efforts to create the Northside LG Neighborhood Watch. He pointed out though that neither north La Grande nor any portion of the community has a crime problem.
“Unlike many cities we do not have any crime-ridden neighborhoods. We have a relatively low crime rate in La Grande,” he said.
Bell said the La Grande Police Department will work closely with the Northside group. However, he stressed that the La Grande Police Department will not provide financial or material support to the program.
“We can’t coordinate this (because) we do not have the resources,” Bell said Thursday at the first meeting of the Northside watch group.
Still, Liz Meyer said she has been impressed with how receptive and supportive the La Grande Police Department has been as the residents work to get the program off the ground.
“It has been amazing,” she said.
Just four north La Grande residents attended Thursday’s meeting but Meyer believes there is much more interest in the Northside LG Neighborhood Watch. She noted that at least 70 people on Facebook have expressed interest in participating in the program.
She said that the Northside LG Neighborhood Watch’s Facebook page is beginning to thrive, with posts such as those warning neighbors about suspicious-looking individuals in the area.
“We are doing fantastically via Facebook,” said Meyer.
She credits north La Grande resident Gail Hescock for providing instrumental help in establishing a Facebook presence for the new neighborhood watch. She said the Facebook page can be reached by typing in Northside LG Neighborhood Watch.
The Meyers are hoping that more people will step forward in person to participate in the program. Grant Meyer said he may hit the streets in hopes of bringing more people into the program.
He said, “I might start knocking on doors” throughout the Northside Neighborhood Watch area, which is bordered by Interstate 84, the Union Pacific Railroad tracks and Island Avenue.
Police Chief Harvey said that for a neighborhood watch to be successful, it is important that those involved be geographically aligned so that information can be easily shared. Ideally, he said, it would be best if there were at least one person participating on each block.
“You should have enough people so that you can be connected,” Harvey said.
Facebook, emails and other forms of electronic communication could strengthen weak links in a communication chain of the neighborhood watch.
“Social media could help fill gaps,” Harvey said.
Harvey welcomes the Northside watch because it will enhances the connection between law enforcement and community members.
“You get a much more involved citizenry (with a neighborhood watch),” he said.
The police chief said the value of this is enormous. Harvey stressed that one reason La Grande has a low crime rate is that people are willing to step forward and assist by reporting suspicious activities and agreeing to testify as witnesses. He said that often in other communities people are less willing to do this because of the fear of negative consequences, but this is not the case in La Grande.
Grant Meyer told Bell at Thursday’s meeting that he feared the establishment of a neighborhood watch program might result in the local law enforcement being flooded with additional calls. Bell said this should not be a concern.
“If people don’t call, we can’t help them,” he said.
He clarified that the only thing people should be wary of is phoning 911 with non-emergency police calls.
Sgt. Kris Rasmussen of the La Grande Police Department agrees. She told those at the meeting that people should not be reluctant to call the police department when they have a concern. She noted that if people do not call in when they have something stolen, when items are recovered by police they won’t know who to return them to.
Liz Meyer said the Northside LG Neighborhood Watch will likely be similar to the one in her neighborhood when she was growing up in Yorkshire, England. She said that it brought her neighborhood together as the residents worked with the police to reduce crime.
“It was very successful,” she said. “We had many get-togethers and (it) brought our community closer together.”
Meyer noted her neighborhood had many elderly residents who welcomed the neighborhood watch.
“They told us they felt much safer and secure,” said Meyer, who moved to the United States 17 years ago.
One type of crime members of the Northside LG Neighborhood Watch may be reporting with some frequency is car burglaries. Bell said car burglaries are not uncommon in La Grande. The good news, though, is that many can be easily prevented.
“Car prowlers are a constant in La Grande, but we seldom have vehicles that are forcibly entered,” Bell said.
This means that as long as cars are locked and the windows are rolled up, it is unlikely they will be broken into.
Rasmussen said people who do not want their vehicles broken into should not leave expensive items where they can be seen.
“You do not want to leave high dollar items in view,” Rasmussen said.
Residents participating in the Northside LG Neighborhood Watch will be increasing vehicle and home security, communicating with their neighbors, reporting suspicious criminal activity and making neighborhoods less attractive to criminals, Liz Meyer said. What they will not be doing is actively patrolling their neighborhoods and taking the law into their own hands.
Bell said it is critical that neighborhood watch members never step outside their role as citizens and understand that America’s law enforcement system is remarkably effective.
“We have a system that works pretty well,” he said.
Capt. Craig Ward of the Union County Sheriff’s Office, agreed that it is important that citizens avoid confrontational behavior when they see something suspicious.
“The outcome can be less than optimal,” he said.
Ward said he is heartened whenever he hears of a neighborhood watch group being created.
“That is the knitting of social fabric, when we all look out for each other,” Ward said.