The bold, broad daylight burglaries in and around Cheviot Hills started in May and have come in clusters since then. About a dozen homes were hit in one day alone, and roughly 50 in a month.
"They were breaking windows, coming through doors," said Colleen Mason Heller, who heads the Cheviot Hills Homeowners Association. She said the crooks seemed to have cased their targets so they could break in when no one was home.
"These were professionally done," with the thieves grabbing jewelry, money and other items, said neighbor Gregg Spiegelman. "A crew of professional criminals."
When the burglars hit one of Spiegelman's neighbors, cleaning out a jewelry collection, he decided it was time to organize neighbors.
"I made it a point to go door to door and introduce myself and get an email distribution list together," said Spiegelman, "so we could stay in touch with each other if someone saw something suspicious."
That's when he met Mason Heller, who lives a few blocks away. Mason Heller told Spiegelman she had an opening on her board for a liaison between the LAPD and the neighborhood. And so began the Cheviot Hills Neighborhood Watch, with 50 block captains signed up so far and Spiegelman serving as chairman.
Early on, Spiegelman and Mason Heller knew they didn't want an aggressive, confrontational approach. The infamous Florida case, with George Zimmerman shooting to death unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin while on neighborhood watch, was a lesson in what could go wrong when you don't wait for police.
Spiegelman, who got advice from the LAPD's senior lead officer in the area, explains to neighbors that there might be times when they can safely ask a stranger if he's lost or needs help. But primarily, he wants them to provide the eyes and ears, not the muscle. The goal is vigilance, not vigilantes.
Spiegelman drew up a list of what suspicious activities to look out for, such as unfamiliar people sitting in cars or going door to door, and he began advising neighbors on ways to secure their homes. Beyond crime watch, he wants people to get to know each other a little better, on the theory that a more together neighborhood is a safer neighborhood. Do elderly folks need extra attention? Are people prepared to handle an earthquake or other emergency?
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But as Spiegelman and Mason Heller discovered, treading the fine line between vigilance and profiling can be tricky when people bring their own experiences, fears and prejudices to bear.
"It's hard to balance," said Mason Heller. She wants neighbors "to be watchful but not to incriminate someone who's not doing anything wrong."
I know exactly what she means. I've been hit three times the past two years with minor but annoying thefts from my garage — a bike the first time, power tools the second and third times. I was ticked off about being ripped off, and unsettled about the ways in which I became suspicious of everyone.
In Cheviot Hills, after the first wave of break-ins, some nerves were raw. On a website set up for neighbors to share information, Mason Heller said, some of the posts were "overly exuberant."
"One of the first things we noticed was that some people were angry about a lot of things — everything from people going through recycling bins illegally to a gardener parking in driveways," Mason Heller said. "We decided to take down a couple of posts that had poor language and unattractive profiling of possible perpetrators."
In June, a resident managed to snap a photograph of a man with what might be freshly stolen booty walking down the street in the middle of the day. Police gathered enough information to put out a "community alert" on June 6, identifying three males as suspects in one of the burglaries, with sketches of two of them.
"Suspects smashed the front door window, ransacked the house, and took property," said the alert. "Suspects fled in a vehicle."
Spiegelman drafted his own alert encouraging residents to report suspicious activity to police.
That's exactly the way police want it, said Officer Estelle Sison, an LAPD spokesperson.
"This is what we harp on," said Sison, who worked with town watch groups as a senior lead officer in the Newton division. "If they see something, they should call us. Take down a license plate. Get a description…. They don't have to go out there and confront anybody, for goodness sake. We don't want that."
Sison said Los Angeles has hundreds of town watch groups, but not all of them coordinate with police, and most of them gear up during a crime wave and then disappear when things are quiet.
Spiegelman and Mason Heller said their next step is to meet with newly recruited block captains and draft a plan, and it might not come down to nightly patrols by civilians with flashlights. People get busy with their lives, Spiegelman said, and it's hard to manage an operation in a neighborhood of 1,400 homes.
But a lot of people are already out walking a dog or jogging, so maybe they can be recruited to keep their eyes open, report anything out of the ordinary to block captains and help build a network of neighbors watching out for neighbors.