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Watching the Crime Rate Drop

THE SAFETY ZONE | JERRY HICKS

February 01, 1999|JERRY HICKS

Crooks these days don't trifle with Trestles.

That's a neighborhood watch group in southeast San Clemente, where residents have reclaimed their streets with their own brand of zero tolerance toward crime.

Every city in Orange County has scores of similar crime watch groups. But many are inactive.

Do burglars take you seriously when a sign on your house says you are part of a neighborhood watch program? Such a claim was posted on our front window when we moved into our Anaheim house. But in six years, we've never been invited to a neighborhood watch meeting.

It used to be that way in Trestles too. But now, neighbors don't just watch each other's houses for strange activity. They meet monthly, put out a bilingual newsletter with crime-

prevention tips and take issues to City Hall.

"Our relationship with Trestles is truly a partnership," said San Clemente City Manager Michael

Parness. "When its residents bring us a problem, they ask, 'What can we do together to get this done?' "

Trestles, just two years old, was recently one of eight watch groups cited by the Orange County Human Relations Commission as the best in the county.

The Trestles Community Neighborhood Watch Group is made up of residents of 14 streets, bounded on the north by Avenida San Luis Rey and the south by Avenida Pala. The east boundary is Avenida Santa Margarita, and the west is the busy El Camino Real. It takes its name from the nearby Trestles surfer's paradise. "We're a typical, middle-class beach community," resident Steve Haubert said.

The wake-up call came in the fall of 1996. Residents were startled to learn of a gang-related drive-by shooting in their midst, which left one young man dead.

This isn't the neighborhood we want, some exclaimed. They sought organizing help from the Sheriff's Department.

"They became our eyes and ears," said Lt. Fred Lisanti of the sheriff's station in San Clemente. "If we send a patrol car through an area five times a day, that still amounts to about 10 minutes of police time. But the neighbors are on watch at all hours."

The result, the lieutenant is convinced, is a significant reduction in crime within the group's boundaries. The police and neighbors believe the elements that led to the 1996 shooting are gone; it wouldn't be repeated now.

Jan Sener, the sheriff's crime prevention specialist for the area, helps them come up with speakers for their meetings at the Masonic Lodge, which always draw at least 75 people. Leaders Piper Walsh and Margo Beauchamp get residents enthused about common issues.

The neighbors' efforts have led to better lighting in alleys and more policing of areas where nonresidents might be hanging out. They've held cleanup parties and even pitched in to fix one neighbor's brick wall.

They got incoming calls to public telephones barred. That prevents anyone from setting up shop at a pay phone for drug deals.

"We've noticed one change; people are out walking the streets here," Beauchamp said. "We weren't doing that before. Basically, we got our neighborhood back."

If you want a crime watch group in your neighborhood, just call your city's police department.

But keep in mind: You have to take the lead. Don't wait for someone to invite you to a meeting.

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