The volunteers in Springfield Township’s Community Watch could have been down the shore, at the local swim club or home lounging on a recliner in the A.C. with their feet up, channel surfing, like many others in their town were this past Friday night. Instead, they were out making their neighborhood safer by reducing and preventing crime and improving the quality of life in their community.
Springfield Township police Officer Andy Graff invited me to spend a Friday night with him and the generous volunteers of Springfield’s Community Watch organization, to ride around the township and see how their efforts pay off to make Springfield a nicer, safer town for everyone. The active volunteers, which currently number about 13, patrol the township about twice a month. Shifts vary from early evening to later evening into the morning. Some volunteers show up for the patrol twice a month and some come only once a month, depending on their own availability.
Community Watch is a crime prevention program that enlists the help of local residents to work in conjunction with the police department, acting as extra sets of eyes and ears. Chief Joe Daly, who previously worked for the Lower Merion Police Department, which has a thriving Community Watch program, initiated the program in Springfield in 2011. Initially run by Officer Pat McKenna until he became a sergeant, the program is now in the capable hands of Officer Graff. In the years prior to the establishment of the Community Watch program in Springfield, the late Fran McCoy operated a small town watch-type of program over in his neighborhood at the intersection of Parker and Dunwoody streets after a rash of burglaries plagued the area. After the official Springfield Community Watch program was launched in 2011, the volunteerism was increased from one neighborhood to cover the entire township.
The seven-year-old Springfield program is designed for residents to work with local police instead of relying on law enforcement to do it for them. With 30 officers in the police department and a population of about 30,000 residents that doubles during the day, Springfield can use the extra help. Since the police can’t be in all places at all times and the township is so large, volunteers fan out in their own vehicles to spot anyone and anything that doesn’t look quite right and report it to the police, who can usually be on the scene within minutes.
“The idea is to be proactive, instead of reactive,” Officer Graff remarked.
Volunteers can ride alone or in pairs, but they must always remain in their cars. Vigilante actions are in no way condoned by the Community Watch program. No one is asked to take personal risks or be a hero. Their mission is only to report crimes and suspicious activities, although the volunteers also report street lights and traffic signals that are out, signs that are askew and other broken or disorder problems in the township so that they can be promptly corrected.
Community Watch across the nation has shown to effectively decrease crime and increase personal security, which creates a greater sense of community involvement.
After a volunteer is approved, Officer Graff trains them in the principles of deterrence, delay and detection. Part of the training is to ride along with experienced volunteers to get a feel for the responsibilities and scope of the mission. Once they’re ready to be a full-fledged Community Watch volunteer, they will report to duty on the posted shift of one of the Community Watch nights in each month.
Since I reported for duty last Friday night, I will tell a potential volunteer exactly what to expect.
Volunteers arrive at Springfield Police Department at a designated time. Officer Graff goes over some recent occurrences in the township, such as some areas that may need special attention on this particular night or later in the summer, like the new high school construction site. He talks about recent crimes and recent developments and news in the township. The volunteers discuss their previous shifts, ask questions and share concerns and information. A large part of the conversation this week centered on the large amount of car break-ins in Springfield and neighboring Delaware County municipalities, especially in unlocked cars.
After the short meeting that lasts no more than 15 minutes, Officer Graff hands all volunteers a log sheet, where they were to record what they called in about and log anything suspicious. The identities of those who are reporting is always kept confidential, and there is always an officer on duty just to answer the incoming calls from the volunteers, so the response time to their reported site is mere minutes.
“We never use a volunteer’s identity when we write up a report,” Officer Graff stated. “All they do is point us in the right direction, and the rest is up to us.”
The volunteers who showed up on my watch night came from all walks of life. Ernie and Nancie Angelozzi are a husband and wife team. Ernie is retired from the Allstate claims department and now works part-time at a mechanic shop. Nancie is a seamstress who designs and sews window treatments and American Girl doll clothes. They laugh and say that friends call them “Starsky and Hutch” because twice a month, they hit the road to help bust crime. They can often spot more people breaking the law than some township officers because they cruise around town in their own inconspicuous, unmarked vehicles, rather than marked police cars.
On this particular night, Nancie drove and Ernie logged their activity. They say they do it because they want to make the community safe for their children and grandchildren who also live in the township. Nancie has logged 400 hours in her seven years as a volunteer, and it seems quite apparent that she loves what she’s doing and will log many more volunteer hours before she’s through.
“This is my township. I care about it and its people. If it looks funny or sounds funny, I am calling the cops,” she says. “We never put ourselves in positions to get trapped or in any dangerous situation. We know never to approach anyone. We keep safe distances away, but we have good instincts. If it looks wrong, more times than not, something is wrong. We try to identify problems before they happen.”
Robert “Bill” Hunter is also retired from the insurance business. He has been a Community Watch volunteer for 11 years.
Shaun Carroll works for Boy Scouts of America. His previous longtime job was as a loss prevention officer at Target, which gave him an already trained eye for the volunteer job.
The other volunteers come from a variety of backgrounds, all with the common goal of helping the police make Springfield a better place to live.
“All of us are just people willing to give back to our community,” Bill explained. “We feel that Springfield is a better community because of our efforts.”
“I didn’t even know we had a Community Watch until I saw them promoting the organization at the ‘Springfield Rocks’ event,” Shaun added. “Springfield is a really tight-knit community. We have a lot of new young families that move in here and are pleasantly surprised by what they find. You don’t get this kind of town in other places. Generally, it’s a safe, welcoming place, a wonderful place to live and raise a family. But our police can’t be everywhere. It takes a village to keep our town a safe and great place to live. That’s why I wanted to get involved. I want to make sure Springfield stays the special community that it is.”
The volunteers set out across the township. They drove through the grade schools, middle school and high school parking lots. School is closed, so no one should be near any school grounds, they said. They continued driving, going behind closed businesses, through new car lots, around the parking lots of Springfield Mall, Springfield Shopping Center, Stoney Creek, Olde Sproul Shopping Village, Springfield Square and Springfield Square East. I never realized this before, but Springfield has 24 very large parks, each with many paths and entrances. People are not supposed to be in the parks after dusk. The volunteers searched the parks, reporting anyone that they found in them, including suspicious vehicles.
I heard many stories of youths saved from breaking the law by these volunteers. The volunteers perused back roads and busy streets like Springfield Road and Baltimore Pike. We drove up by Marple and down by Morton, over by Clifton and to the border of Swarthmore. They stopped and observed if they saw a faint light on or doors opened or cracked at businesses that they knew were closed. They said it was a relatively quiet, uneventful night, but I thought it was super interesting how observant they were and how many out-of-the-ordinary details they recorded or called in. They had trained instincts and experienced eyes.
I told them that I will never look at their township in the same way.
As we drove, I heard stories of things that they reported through the years that prevented crimes or caught criminals. The volunteers had an amicable relationship with the police on duty. Volunteers used to carry radios but now use their cellphones to relay information throughout their shift.
“What we add to the township is invaluable,” Bill Hunter remarked. “We shadow young kids walking home alone. We prevent vandalism and stop kids from doing stupid stuff that can get them hurt. This is our way of giving back to our community. Springfield was always a safe, nice town to live in, and we try to keep it that way.”
Volunteers meet back at the police station at the shift’s end to turn in their log sheet and give a short, casual verbal report to Officer Graff. As my shift drew to a close, I found myself silently wishing my own township had a Community Watch program. The time had flown by. The volunteers and Officer Graff exchanged some conversation and said their goodbyes. It was more than obvious that they all had built a friendly, close relationship through their team effort of crime prevention.
When I arrived at the police station Friday night, I truthfully had no idea on earth what to expect, but when I left, I had a profound and genuine respect for Officer Graff and his team of Community Watch volunteers. They were a warm, giving, knowledgeable and bright group of professionals, and it was an honor to cruise with them and get a peek at all that they do.
New volunteers are always needed. As we all know, life changes. Illness happens, new babies arrive, job schedules change, people move, parents age and a hundred otherc hanges in life can make a person who was an active volunteer suddenly become inactive. In order to keep Community Watch vibrant and operating at its fullest potential, the volunteer pool must be continually increased and replenished. Officer Graff and the volunteers will be actively recruiting from 6 to 9 p.m. Aug. 7 at the annual National Night Out at Springfield Country Club, but potential volunteers can sign on any time throughout the year. Volunteers must be at least 21 years old and have a valid driver’s license and no criminal record.
To find out more about becoming a volunteer, visit springfieldcommunitywatch.org or call Officer Andrew Graff at 610-544-1100 ext. 423. Applications can be downloaded from the website, which also contains more information about Community Watch.
Readers can reach Peg DeGrassa at email@example.com.