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Open house helps citizens form new bonds

The entrance to the city of Forest Grove’s auditorium was decorated with flags and red, white and blue balloons for the “Public Safety and Neighborhood Watch Open House” on June 29.

Your community service officer (CSO) — me — sat back and waited to see how many would show up after weeks of emails, posting signs, a telephone marathon and some cajoling.

About 20 good folks from a dozen different neighborhoods showed up. A fellow came from Cornelius with questions, hoping to gain answers he could take back to his own neighborhood. Two ladies from the west end of Forest Grove came to learn more about our community and how a Neighborhood Watch could work in the Reuter Farm area. A mother and daughter came to find out how to get help to get their neighbors interested enough to join in. They mentioned that their neighbors didn’t feel the need for a Neighborhood Watch group since everything had been quiet around their streets.

Often problem behavior seems to be the impetus for calls about how to start or join a Neighborhood Watch group. Let there be a rash of criminal activity in an area, and the CSO phone starts to ring.

Police Chief Janie Schutz and Capt. Kevin Ellingsburg pulled it all together at the beginning of the meeting as they talked about the need for community policing. They covered the basics of what it takes to make and keep a community safe. Mike Bernhardt talked about how his Neighborhood Watch program got started and why it is so successful in deterring crime in his area. They take a proactive approach that assists the police doing their jobs. And they have learned the correct ways to do it through a number of neighborhood meetings that often then turn in to social gatherings. Members become friends. They partner up to conduct foot patrols, they know how to identify suspicious people and how to call 911 to give the dispatcher the necessary information in order to send an officer out on his job. With the right information, he or she can foil a crime or apprehend someone who has committed one.

City of Forest Grove volunteer coordinator Kari Middleton talked about volunteer opportunities and — just as she addressed the subject of graffiti and the group of active volunteers working on abatement — two rough-looking characters came from a back hallway. They were dressed in black with kerchiefs over their faces, and they were actually two of my youth volunteers. They skulked in and began to rapidly apply gang graffiti to the big board at the side of the auditorium. They were in and out in two minutes and left behind a huge tag. Some people didn’t even realize they had been there until Mike Bernhardt shined his LED light on them as they slid away.

This very effectively illustrated how quick and slippery the graffiti taggers are, and how easy it is to slip away unnoticed. It also shows how a couple of teenagers who came to the police department for Career Day turned that experience into an act of volunteerism. They have helped with several community events, and must remain anonymous. Though their parents support them in assisting the police, they are also afraid that if some of their children’s “friends” find out, they might make trouble for them. It is a double-edged sword and part of the bigger problem we are facing. It brings us right back to “community” and the fact that we can no longer contain ourselves to our own box if our world is to be safe for those we love and care about.

As the meeting broke up, informal conversation took off. With mugs of coffee and fresh muffins in hand, folks stayed and talked. There were more questions for Capt.Ellingsburg and the chief was in a deep discussion about graffiti and our volunteers.

As I was taking down the flags, I noticed a group of four people gathered around, sharing ideas. They didn’t know each other before this meeting. One of our longtime leaders was sharing with our two newest how to set up effective communication. It was the best reward I could have had. The chief and I exchanged a knowing smile. I got a high-five from another one of our Neighborhood Watch leaders, and even though the numbers weren’t as we had hoped, this was a very successful open house.

Don’t wait until next year to join in. Contact me or Mike Bernhardt to be part of the solution rather than wait for a problem. Besides, it’s fun and a great way to know your neighbors.

Take time to request a visit from our officers during National Night Out this year, on Aug. 6. Get on the map early to ensure a visit. The chief is already planning their route, and you can sign up to be on it by emailing mherb@forest grove-or.gov.

Teresa Kohl is community service officer for the Forest Grove Police Department.




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