By Joel Hall
Two hundred people gathered at the Forest Park Police Department's biannual City Wide Community Neighborhood Watch Meeting on Thursday night. Since last year, the aggressive community policing effort has helped bring down the city's crime rate by 18 percent, according to police and city officials.
Major Chris Matson, of the Forest Park Police Department, said the city has held monthly neighborhood watch meetings since last year - one for residents south of Forest Parkway, and one for residents north of the parkway.
Since last Christmas, however, the city has brought together all of its neighborhood watch participants every six months for a large gathering with food, door prizes, and information about recent crime, and crime statistics.
Matson believes the meetings are making a difference by getting people motivated about stopping crime before it starts. "What we were doing wasn't working as well as we wanted it to, so it was time for things to change," he said. "It (the bi-annual meeting) was so successful, and that has brought us to where we are. If people can see what we are doing, it builds relationships."
During the last session, Forest Park residents viewed slides of criminals recently arrested, wanted persons, and they reviewed current criminal statistics. In a presentation, Matson showed them that there have been no murders in the city this year, compared to two last year. Some other crimes, such as burglary and theft, are down from last year, too.
Billy Carlisle, 51, an eight-year city resident, said the meetings have helped arm citizens with information they can use to protect themselves. "It lets you know who to look for and who might be trying to break in," he said. "It shows you who's messing with what, so you can take care of your neighbors. If more people got involved, there would be less crime."
Elizabeth Foster, a 47-year resident, believes the program has brought together residents on both sides of the railroad tracks. She said the program helps put a face on the police department. "You get to exchange ideas and meet your neighbors," she said. "When you separate it, it is like two different cities. I like the idea of bringing them together.
"They [the police] are more like your friends now, instead of people just paid to protect you," she added. "They are part of the community."
Forest Park Mayor Pro Tempore Sparkle Adams said she believes the city's recent neighborhood watch approach has helped foster a sense of shared responsibility among residents. "Initially, we assigned block captains," Adams said. "This is a little more aggressive of an approach.
"We find when everybody comes out, everybody is a block captain," she said. "This has given people more of an awareness to look out, and if they see something strange, to just call and not feel bad about calling."