ST. PETERSBURG — It started with the power tools. Then it was bicycles. Two of them. Michele Cardinal was fed up with the stealing from her back yard.
So were her neighbors. Michael Manlowe's home was burglarized 10 times. Power tools, bicycles and an antique French clock. A block away, his landscaping business was broken into 15 times over several years, pilfered for 75 bags of mulch and an array of pots.
"People get tired of being preyed upon," said Cardinal, explaining how she became coordinator of the Historic Roser Park neighborhood crime watch a year ago. "One person says, 'I was tired of being broken into,' then someone else says, 'I was, too.' Then you both say, 'Well, we need to do something about this.' "
Cardinal and Manlowe are part of a wave of residents who in the past year have swelled the ranks of Neighborhood Crime Watch, a Police Department program in which residents work closely with officers to combat crime. Across the city, participants say the soured economy and fears of rampant crime influenced their decision to become involved.
Last month, there were 188 people acting as crime watch coordinators in 139 neighborhoods. A year earlier, there were 150 crime watch coordinators in 109 neighborhoods, according to St. Petersburg police Officer Johnny Harris, who heads the program. And at the same time, citywide crime statistics show drops in most violent crimes and slight increases in property crimes such as burglary and larceny.
In recent months, Historic Roser Park residents can count the incidents of crime in their neighborhood on one hand. Many of the new crime watch volunteers speak of the turnaround in awe, amazed at the simplicity of how it worked.
Crime watch often includes nightly patrols, use of surveillance cameras, handheld radios, street lighting and street signs. But at its essence, it boils down to neighbors paying close attention to their streets and reporting their findings to each other and police.
The crime watch program began in 1981 under then-police Chief Sam Lynn. It started with 400 volunteer coordinators — more than twice the number today.
Over the years, the program shrank or grew, as coordinators either moved away, died or became complacent, Harris said. Often, volunteers get frustrated at how long it can take to see results.
At a recent meeting to announce a restructuring of the Disston Heights crime watch program, police Chief Chuck Harmon said crime watch historically has grown "when things are bad." He added: "I think the next couple of years will be tough years. We need your help more than ever."
Disston Heights, one of the largest neighborhoods in the city, was divided into 10 crime watch areas in order to make the program more manageable, a change that came after years of falling participation. But recently, residents became increasingly concerned about crime, said crime watch coordinator Carole Griffiths.
By contrast, Historic Roser Park is one of the city's smallest neighborhoods, a triangular sliver west of Albert Whitted Airport. Residents say it was tight-knit even before crime watch was established last year — the sort of place where people know when neighbors are away.
Still, in neighborhoods of every size, another recent trend has been overreaction about how bad crime really is, Harris said. He recently dropped in on a meeting of the Allendale crime watch group in response to calls he received about a rash of car and home burglaries. In every instance, he pointed out to the group, doors to cars or homes were left unlocked.
"It's like leaving a 'for free' sign on your front yard," he told them.
A neighborhood crime watch group begins with the Police Department's blessing. It continues with a few visits from Harris to go over techniques on basic home protection, how to be a good witness and the importance of calling police to report suspicious activity or crime. It continues over time with regular interaction from officers assigned to the area, who share statistical information with residents.In Historic Roser Park, they meet regularly to discuss problem areas. They text or e-mail one another when they see suspicious activity and hold "street sweeps" to pick up trash and report code violations or broken streetlights. They also used neighborhood association money to buy a surveillance camera, which is moved wherever it is needed.
Brian Bailey, who runs an advertising business from his home in Historic Roser Park, said he was amazed when one of his neighbors, not his alarm company, called him recently to tell him the home alarm had gone haywire.
Bailey reflected that criminals must also know that someone is watching.
"Crime just doesn't happen here anymore," he said. "They wouldn't dare."
Luis Perez can be reached at (727) 892-2271 or Lperez@sptimes.com.