Newark police step up block watch brigade

By Barry Carter | The Star-Ledger
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on October 18, 2016

Valerie Crute (left) and her neighbor, Robbie Seabrooks, talk about the need to start block association in their West Ward neighborhood in Newark. The Newark Police Department has started a recruitment drive to increase the number of block watch groups that have declined in the last 11 years from 200 to 70.

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Robbie Seabrooks made sure he wasn't going to miss the block watch recruitment meeting with the Newark Police Department.

He left his job at Port Newark, where he operates a machine that stacks shipping containers, three hours early.

"That's how important it was for me,'' Seabrooks said. "This is something I feel good about. This is big.''

The city police department tips its hat to you, sir, and to Valerie Crute, the leader of your West Ward neighborhood, who rounded up 10 residents to come along.

In fact, the department also thanks the 20 other people who sat with them last week for a couple of hours of block watch training. Block watches are a practice that, unfortunately, has faded over the past 11 years in the city.

Anthony Ambrose, the city's public safety director, said there had been more than 200 block watch organizations across the city's five wards little more than a decade ago, but – for one reason or another – they've dwindled to about 70 groups. 

He said many of the groups most likely became dormant because people moved away and the interest waned.

"After doing an assessment at community meetings, there was definitely a need to increase block watch groups,'' Ambrose said. "In order to have community trust and community engagement, you have to be a partner with the community.''

The department's goal is to create as many block watch groups as possible, but for now, the realistic target is to get back to the 200 it once had.

West Ward residents on a three-block stretch of Sanford Place – from Kerrigan Boulevard to Marsac Place – are all in. For them, it's about coming together to ward off potential problems, not because their neighborhood is on the decline.

"I love and appreciate this area,'' said Crute, who moved into the neighborhood last year.

On her immediate wish list, Crute said, are some speed bumps on Ellery Avenue to slow down speeding motorists along the cross street.

And, she said, a four-way stop sign would be nice where Sanford intersects with Kerrigan.

For the most part, though, this section of Sanford  is peaceful and genteel. Kids are not hanging on the corner. The tree-lined block of modest, well-kept homes is pretty much litter-free. When it appears, Seabrooks picks it up.

At their first block meeting, 30 residents showed up. Some people know each other, some don't, but Crute said they're working on it.

"We want to be a proactive group to get things done and keep Newark looking nice.''

Across the city, a church on South 10th Street, between 15th and 16th avenues, has taken up the block watch cause for its neighborhood.

Good News Sounds of Pentecost Ministries has been cutting grass and cleaning lots near the church, even though they don't belong to the church.

"Anything that we can do to help the area that we're in, that's what we want to do,'' said Leslie Kennedy, outreach and public advocate for the church.

The church even locked the gate to one of the lots, where someone had been routinely dumping debris. However,  Kennedy said the lock was removed and replaced with another one, presumably by the owner. 

"We're not supposed to be on the property, but we don't want our church to look bad,'' Kennedy said.

Meanwhile, Kennedy said debris continues to be dumped by whomever got rid of the church's lock.

At the training session with residents, police Lt. Wilbur Cole explained the do's and don'ts of block watch groups and the obvious reason why they exist.

" Crime feeds on empathy,'' Cole said. "If you just mind your business, your neighborhood becomes vulnerable.''

Forming a block watch group, he said, allows residents to be an additional set of "eyes and ears" for the police. He stressed that it's not to be a vigilante group.

Alice Turner, a resident in the Central Ward, she came to the recruitment meeting to rekindle a relationship with the police department.  

She said her community is making a comeback after it fell off a bit when the previous block watch group dissipated. But Turner, who has lived on Littleton Avenue for 21 years, said some New Yorkers have been buying property on her street.

She believes the interest is related to downtown Newark development, a revitalization that Turner expects to "trickle on up'' to her street.

"I'm not going anywhere,'' Turner said. "I have no reason to move.''

Neither does Harold White, who lives on Marsac Place, around the corner from Seabrooks and Crute.

"I'm like rock 'n' roll,'' White said. "I'm here to stay.''

The Newark Police Department is hoping to re-create that lasting relationship with residents, too.

The meeting last week was the first training session, but there's another one on Thursday at police headquarters on Clinton Avenue and Bergen Street.  If you can't make it, call (973) 877-9552 to find out when another meeting will be held.

The department will be looking for you to show up.

Please do.

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