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For Portsmouth, Internet sets up better back fence

Pilot project helps neighbors share tips, information and alerts

Had Jason Henshaw heard that homes in his neighborhood had been repeatedly burglarized in previous weeks, he never would have left a window open with two wallets nearby.

About a year ago, Henshaw and his wife, Maria Valdez-Henshaw, were nailed by a burglar who, police told them, had hit the neighborhood at least 30 other times over three weeks.

While they eventually recovered their wallets with credit cards intact, the burglars had absconded with a good deal of cash.

'Had I known what was going on, I would have been more cautious,' said Jason Henshaw, a Community Association of Portsmouth board member.

That was a year ago. Now the Henshaws and their neighbors have an Internet-based protective weapon in their home security arsenal. On Feb. 1 a six-month pilot program, called the eVolvement project, was launched in Portsmouth to test the notion that, among other things, a wired neighborhood is a safer neighborhood.

The project centers on an 'electronic back fence' that allows neighbors to swap data on local incidents. The idea is that the immediacy of Web-posted information thwarts crime more effectively than, say, distributing warning placards door-to-door.

That's one of the reasons the Portland Police Bureau, which helped develop the site, endorses the project.

Project organizers, led by Portland-based nonprofit neighborhood champion Innovative Partnership, hope that eVolvement's success will be contagious and spread far beyond Portsmouth.

'We don't want to just see it in every Portland neighborhood: We want to see it done nationally,' said Ruth Scott, Innovative Partnership's president, who formerly was executive director of the Association for Portland Progress.

'Had this tool been in place, I probably wouldn't have been hit by that cat burglar,' Jason Henshaw said. 'I would have been more careful and locked my windows every night. I was surprised that I was number 32 in a three-week period.

'Then again, a cat burglar isn't the kind of thing that typically makes the news.'

Hundreds will log on

It is, though, the kind of thing that can mobilize a neighborhood. Portsmouth fit the bill for the pilot program's kickoff not only because of the burglar but because it sits in an economically diverse area. Scott believes at least 300 neighbors will begin regularly logging on to the site (www.portlandonline.com/portsmouth) during the trial run.

On the site, Portsmouth neighbors share ideas on community safety, as well as discuss ways to make the neighborhood more livable.

The North Portland neighborhood is bounded by Columbia Boulevard to the north, Lombard Street to the south, Carey Boulevard to the east and Chautauqua Boulevard to the west.

To enlist involvement from lower-income residents, the Mount Hood Cable Regulatory Commission provided a grant to offer 150 new Gateway Pentium 4 computers at $250 apiece, about a quarter of their market price.

Comcast Cable is providing high-speed Internet access to up to 300 households at a discounted rate of $15. Comcast purchased AT&T Broadband early last year.

'We want to get citizens actively involved in their communities, not just in Oregon, but nationwide,' said Comcast spokesman Dan Williams. eVolvement 'can help with things as simple as what to do with a community park to directing police to issues within the community.'

It also could prevent police from making calls in the first place.

'Often, it's something they can call the city about,' said Jason Christensen, the police bureau's senior neighborhood officer for Portsmouth. 'If we put information out there, it saves us a lot of time (with which) we'd otherwise be going out to answer calls.'

So far, residents have used the site to voice concerns and swap various tips.

Susan Landauer, a North Hodge Street resident and neighborhood activist, logged on recently to comment on the deteriorating storefront of a local business. Others quickly chimed in; a team of neighbors soon will approach the owners to demand improvements.

'What this site does is let people know they're not alone,' Landauer said.

The 'electronic back fence' will show up next in the Rockwood neighborhood in Gresham, Scott said, and, after that, in other Portland neighborhoods.