Residents of a community can help reduce crime if they keep their eyes and ears open and for that reason, neighborhood watch programs work. Larry Gutridge, the crime prevention specialist at Bravo Station at the Lee County Sheriff's Office in Lehigh, oversees such groups in the community and is eager to continue to get the word out.
"We can bring crime down as it has been shown if we have people who are the eyes and ears for the Sheriff's Office," Gutridge said from his office at the Bravo Station on Homestead Rd.
Gutridge, a retired minister, has held the role of providing information to the community for six years now.
Larry Gutridge holds a map of the Neighborhood Watch group locations.
"When there are crimes in certain areas of the community, we get calls from people who are concerned and I am more than happy to form a group of people in their neighborhood and help them form a Neighborhood Watch Program," Gutridge said.
"They work," he said.
"It's also a great way to get to know your neighbors. In many areas of the community, people don't know who live within their own neighborhoods," he said.
When Gutridge helps to form a Neighborhood Watch group, the residents of the area select a crime watch coordinator.
"These are folks who have the time to watch over their neighborhoods and to listen to what people have to say," Gutridge said.
"If something seems suspicious in a neighborhood, the Sheriff's Office wants to know about it.
"We have found people sometimes who don't think they should bother us by calling if they see something out of the ordinary. But the Sheriff's Office and its people want to get those calls. They are not wasted calls because we will check the things out and it is always better to be on the safe side," he said.
Currently, Gutridge says there are 60 active neighborhood watch groups in Lehigh. There have been more and there have been less.
"Some times interest falls off, but we want to get people in those neighborhoods to realize they are very important to us," he said.
Gutridge is an expert in helping to make people aware of criminal activity and what to look for. He is also aware of scams that are taking place in the area and keeps in touch with those who are ahead of neighborhood groups to keep them advised of what may be happening or about to happen. That information is passed to others in the area," he said.
"We all must be continually aware of what is going on around us, day and night," he said.
"We need to know that we should keep our vehicles locked when we are not in them. A lot of people do forget to lock their cars and this invites criminal activity. Even if your vehicle is parked in a garage, be sure to lock it and be sure to lock and secure all entrances to your home, including sliding glass doors," he said.
There have been incidents where people who park outside their garages and leave their cars unlocked with a remote garage opener inside the car. If a culprit gets the remote, and if the back door inside the garage is not locked, it is an easy way to gain entry.
Gutridge is aware daily of where crime is taking place in Lehigh. He keeps a map updated, too, as to where neighborhood watches are and how they can spread throughout the community.
"I stay in touch with the neighborhood coordinators via email or by talking to them on the phone," he said.
"We keep the business community tuned in, too, about criminal activity in their area," he said.
While Gutridge is paid for working 40 hours a week, those days could be after hours or on weekends and even on Sundays. He takes times throughout the week to compensate for time he works to help people.
"If a group wants to meet on a Saturday afternoon, that is fine with me. I will be there armed with anti-crime information and help them through the efforts of selecting their own coordinator. Often folks bring food and they will have a pot-luck dinner. It also is like I said, gives people an opportunity to get to know one another. That helps so much when everyone is watching out for everyone else.
"Get to know your neighbors if you don't have a Neighborhood Watch. Keep check of who is in your neighborhood. Make sure those who live alone are making out okay. Get to know each other," he said.
As for the many remote areas of Lehigh where criminals think it may be easier to break into homes and commit other crimes, Gutridge noted that many have good security systems.
"And even if you are on a street without homes around you, you can still form a group and people who live in remote areas can keep their eyes open and watch vehicles driving in the area. Learn what type of vehicles your neighbors down the road drive so if you see different vehicles in and out of the area, something could be happening. It is just good common sense to keep your eyes open and if there is something suspicious, call us. We do want to know. People's calls are not a bother to us," he said again.
Each of the Sheriff's Office districts in Lee County has crime prevention specialists like Gutridge. And Sheriff Mike Scott's crime prevention people schedule workshops on preventing frauds, scams and identity theft throughout the year.
In a separate news release from the Sheriff's Office, it is noted that when your phone rings and you answer it, you may hear something like this:
"Congratulations, this is Winners's International and you've won our big prize. We will release the funds as soon as you send cash via Western Union to pay the shipping, taxes, and processing fees."
Or the caller might say, "Hi Grandma, this is your favorite grandson and I need help. I've been in a bad car accident in Canada and was arrested. You have to wire transfer money immediately but don't tell anyone about this."
Don't believe it. The urgent voice on the other end of the line often sounds legitimate but in fact the call is really a criminal looking to steal your money, or your identity.
One such phony call just recently made to some in the area what Gutridge calls robot calls.
This particular robot call uses a computer and goes from number to number and asks you to push a certain number for prayer.
If you press a number, someone may be able to take over your phone. Never give out personal information and never, never give out your banking account number and don't pay people money before they do a job for you.
These are the things that Gutridge will often talk about when he gives seminars and meets with neighborhood groups. He is also available to speak at club meetings in Lehigh.
A seminar is scheduled on Feb. 14 from 9:30 to 11:30 a.m. at Christ United Methodist church at 1430 Homestead Rd. in Lehigh to learn about how seniors can recognize and report frauds and scams.
And finally, Gutridge said that coordinators of Neighborhood Watches are told not to carry a weapon with them. They are told to observe and then make a call to the Sheriff's Office.
If you are concerned about crime in and around the area in which you live, Gutridge encourages you to call him at 477-1802.
He'll help you set up a Neighborhood Watch group and encourage residents to look out for each other.
"We all want less crime and this is one way people can be the ears and eyes for the Sheriff's Office," Gutridge said.