KEITH WHITCOMB JR.
DORSET -- Burglars may want to start avoiding the west side of Dorset, or at least that's what the 80 or so people who congregated at the United Church of Dorset to organize an official neighborhood watch program are hoping will happen.
Susan Weiss, a resident and speaker for the group organizers, said the watch would begin immediately but there is more to do and some organizational items to work out. She said she and other volunteers started meeting a few months ago and have divided the area around Dorset West Road into 16 sections. Each section, which has 10 to 20 houses, has a captain, and people living in their section who want to participate
The captains will send information to an overseer who in turn passes information to police and sends word from police back down the chain. Weiss said this cuts down on duplicate information and rumors.
Weiss said the structure of the watch is based on guidelines from the U.S. Justice Department, which recommends watch groups work in small units. She said that for now the group is focusing on Dorset East Road and the roads that branch off it, but the focus may expand. "If your area is interested in organizing, we would be happy to assist you," she said.
If a person sees a suspicious vehicle or anything they think is odd or out of the ordinary, they should first call police then report to their captain, Weiss said.
She said neighborhood watch signs are also a part of the program and are intended to act as a deterrent by letting burglars know people are on the lookout. The town itself is purchasing eight road signs, but residents can purchase different levels of signage at H.N. Williams.
She said 12- by 12-inch lawn signs can be purchased for $45, window stickers for $1, and 4-foot and 8-foot stakes for $13 and $45 respectively. The signs are aluminum and built to last, said Weiss, and those not wanting the expense could also laminate a paper copy given out along with a packet of information.
Vermont State Police Lt. Reginald Trayah was at the meeting and gave a brief talk on what state police are doing in response to burglaries all over the county. Trayah said his barracks in Shaftsbury, where he is the commander, has 14 troopers assigned to it. Only about three or four are on duty at one time and they have to cover towns that don't have a local police force.
Only Bennington, Manchester, and Winhall have police departments, while the Bennington County Sheriff's Department works primarily on special contracts.
Trayah said despite this, police in Bennington County work well with one another, and Manchester police can be sent to places like Dorset when troopers are occupied in Readsboro, 45 minutes away at the south side of the county.
Trayah listed a number of practices people could follow to make their homes less of an attractive target. These included alarm systems from sophisticated the rudimentary, to having neighbors watch a home while the owner is away. Other precautions, as many burglaries hit seasonal homes or ones with owners on long vacations, included things that make the home appear occupied, such as having mail held, the lawn maintained and timed lights set to go on at random throughout the house.
He said what has been frustrating for police is people not reporting suspicious activity either at all, after the fact or not in a timely manner. While police may not always be nearby, there may come a day when they are and a string of burglaries can get solved. He said it's also good if people take photographs of their valuables such as jewelry. Police have databases for recovered stolen property but connecting it to its owners is often difficult.
The goal of the watch, he said, is not to have people on patrol but to develop a community of good witnesses. "The biggest problem a burglar has is being seen," he said. Burglars go to great lengths to find houses they can enter unobserved, often posing as contractors or people looking for lost pets or friends. He said they knock on doors in the daylight and enter if no one is home or give a cover story if someone answers the door. Trayah said police would rather go out to 100 false alarms than miss a real chance at catching a burglar.
He was asked by an audience member if there were any statistics showing neighborhood watches work. He said they can't hurt and based on personal experience he knows some communities get reputations for being places criminals should avoid.
Town Manager Rob Gaiotti said the town has budgeted $60,000 per year to have state police in Dorset for an added 20 hours per week. He said troopers normally patrol it anyway but the money assures 20 extra hours above and beyond the norm.
"Vermonters are not used to the situation we find ourselves in," he said, adding that he also encourages people to call police when they see something strange and to be on the lookout for suspicious activity. He said it's a service everyone is paying for and it should be used.
Contact Keith Whitcomb Jr. at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @KWhitcombjr