Ypsi-area neighborhood watches maintain robust presence by building community

Ypsilanti and Ypsilanti Township's many neighborhood watches don't miss a thing – even suspicious Pokemon-hunting activity.


One day about two years ago, residents of Ypsi Township's Gault Village neighborhood reported to their neighborhood watch and its liaison at the Washtenaw County Sheriff 's Office that cars were mysteriously stopping in front of houses and just parking there for a while before driving away.


Maurice Stovall Sr., chair of the Gault Village Neighborhood Association, says a few residents wondered if drug or other criminal activity was involved, but it turned out there was nothing sinister going on. A sheriff's deputy looked into it and reported back that the neighborhood was just experiencing the Pokemon Go craze. The people in cars were tracking mythical creatures to a neighborhood "Poke-stop" and hatching the creatures' "eggs" on their smartphones.


Although alert neighbors didn't stop a crime in its tracks, they did what their neighborhood watch is designed to do: watch out for each other and report suspicious activity.


When people think of neighborhood watches, they often imagine citizens on patrol with walkie-talkies reporting crime to the police. But neighborhood watches today are often just one function of a neighborhood association, and social media plays a much bigger role than in the past.


While the format of the modern neighborhood watch may have changed, the underlying principle of neighbors watching out for neighbors and collaborating with local law enforcement agencies is alive and well in the city of Ypsi and Ypsi Township.


Ypsilanti Township watches and associations


Ypsi Township community engagement coordinator Crystal Campbell says the township has between 25 and 28 township watches, though a few are mostly inactive. She says about 20 meet at least quarterly, many more often than that.


The Gault Village Neighborhood Association has been active since 1995 and meets monthly at St. Matthew's United Methodist Church except in December and January. Stovall says attendance is down a bit at the moment, but typically the meetings attract about 30-40 residents.


When Stovall first moved into a Habitat for Humanity home in the neighborhood in 2014, the then-chair of the neighborhood watch came to Stovall's home dedication and introduced himself.


"I was excited that I got to be in a neighborhood that has a watch," Stovall says. "I like being involved and in the know and educating people. I'm a former college professor, and knowledge is power. The more people know, the better off they are."


Over time, the neighborhood watch became just one piece of the neighborhood association.


The association kicks off each year with a February potluck and spends a lot of time on socializing. The neighborhood Facebook group is less about reporting crime and more about community needs, such as recommendations for good restaurants or hairdressers, sharing photos, or asking people to keep an eye out for lost pets.


The neighborhood network is in place, though, for when crime does happen, as with a rash of young people breaking into cars and snatching whatever they could find a few years ago. A few minors were caught and released to their parents, but one 19-year-old went to jail. The sheriff's department used the incident as an opportunity to remind residents to lock their car doors.


The West Willow Neighborhood Watch started in the late 1980s in response to gang activity, says New West Willow Neighborhood Association president JoAnn McCollum.


By the early 1990s, though, the watch had morphed into the nonprofit West Willow Neighborhood Association, which took over a former police station to serve as the neighborhood resource center. The association became dormant a few years later, but a group picked it back up again, appending the word "New" to the title.


These days, a report from the sheriff's department liaison is just one element of monthly neighborhood association meetings. The report usually includes a total number of calls for service (CFS) as well as a breakdown of categories.


"The deputy comes in and gives us a report on the crime that happened the month prior, and we can ask questions about whether it has been solved and what we can do to prevent crime," McCollum says.


The sheriff's department liaison reports that crime has been down about 10 percent month over month for the entire year of 2018. McCollum says she's not sure why, but she thinks it might have something to do both with the neighborhood association's work and Habitat for Humanity of Huron Valley's work in the neighborhood.


While "quality of life" complaints such as noise complaints or medical emergencies were up a little, the crime rate was down overall in October, for instance.


"I've never seen a CFS under 200, but it was 180 at the last report," McCollum says.


Like the Gault Village group, West Willow residents share information online through both Facebook and NextDoor. Additional online resources include the township's "See Something, Say Something" website and SeeClickFix.


City watches and CoPac


The city of Ypsi utilizes a slightly different model from the township. While there are active individual neighborhood associations, they have banded together in a federation of associations called the Community Policing Action Council (CoPac). Four neighborhoods founded it in the late 1990s, but it has grown over time.


Today the council is composed of representatives of nearly 20 neighborhood associations, as well as other groups like business associations, the Ypsilanti Chamber of Commerce, the Ypsilanti Police Department, and Eastern Michigan University (EMU). It meets every other month.


"We do whatever we can do professionally, but we can't be on your block every day," says Ypsilanti police chief Tony DeGuisti. "You're on your block every day and you know what's normal and what's not, when your neighbor is on vacation and you need to be watching the house. The police department's best partner is a well-educated, informed, active community."


Ypsi resident Steve Pierce spent several years as president of CoPac and now serves as treasurer.


Pierce says neighborhood watches are great for times of crisis, but it's important to have neighborhoods connecting with law enforcement on a regular basis.


"The police department tells us they have found that neighborhood watches spin up when something bad has happened in the community," he says. "The neighborhood rallies, and they can make a huge difference. But community policing and the idea of the neighborhood council is to be doing these things and sharing information even when things are going well."


If a community does want to actively patrol the streets, its members can go through training to be part of the Volunteer Service Corp, patrolling city streets or special events with walkie-talkies and alerting police to issues.


However, Pierce says CoPac and the city's neighborhood watch groups mainly focus on community building and sharing information. People who find out about community events or concerns through CoPac can then pass the news onto their neighbors.


For example, the EMU athletics department was encouraged to send out a warning to the CoPac mailing list about fireworks during a recent athletics event. Pierce says the community didn't expect fireworks to be as loud or to go off as late as they did.


"It was pretty unnerving at 11 at night to hear booms going off for 15 or 20 minutes when it wasn't a holiday," Pierce says. "People were really upset, and the athletic director took a lot of calls and complaints. He said he's going to take advantage of the mailing list in the future."


Pierce says he doesn't look at crime statistics, because that's a job for law enforcement.


"How we measure impact is asking whether we're doing a good job of staying connected to neighborhoods," Pierce says. "When something tragic or bad does happen, like a broken water main or a fallen tree or a tragedy that has hit a neighborhood, systems are in place for the police department, city, and neighborhood groups to respond quickly and get that information out into the community."


Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township and the interim project manager of On the Ground Ypsilanti. She has served as innovation and jobs/development news writer for Concentrate since early 2017 and is an occasional contributor to Driven. You may reach her at sarahrigg1@gmail.com.


All photos by Doug Coombe.

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