“Wise men learn more from fools than fools from the wise.”
An ancient Roman statesman, Cato the Elder, wrote these words centuries ago, but the adage still rings true, as evidenced at the April 1 meeting of the Carrick/Overbrook Block Watch.
Though the meeting was held on April Fools’ Day, there was no joking around when it came to matters of public safety, vigilance and community involvement. Area residents came out to discuss the elements of a successful and effective block watch, and to learn how keeping track of suspect behavior can benefit their neighborhoods.
Carrick resident Donna Williams took the floor to tell the story of how and why she started the Kirk Avenue Block Watch, which has been praised and used as a model for other such organizations in the South Hills area.
Ms. Williams explained the block watch was born approximately one year ago, after she and her neighbors had been plagued by incidents of “thugs, late-hour disturbances and criminal activity” at a home on their street for more than a year.
During that “year from hell,” Ms. Williams said she kept careful records of suspicious events, writing down dates, times, descriptions of people, license plate numbers and other pertinent information. But she didn’t know what to do with that information—until she attended a Carrick/Overbrook Block Watch meeting and met who she later came to call her “heroes.”
Two of Ms. Williams’ heroes are Councilwoman Natalia Rudiak and Zone 3 Police Officer Christine Luffey, both of whom Ms. Williams said showed her what to do with the information she’d collected and gave her tips on how to establish a block watch on her street.
Within three days of tapping into these resources, a SWAT team came out to Kirk Avenue and removed perpetrators from the problem property, said Ms. Williams.
Applauding the help she received from her heroes, Ms. Williams stated, “It’s crucial to know who your representatives (and resources) are.”
Equally as important, she continued, is knowing who to call for what matters, and not being afraid to call. To illustrate this point, Ms. Williams pointed out some subjects about which residents should call 311 versus calling 911, the councilwoman’s office or other municipal phone lines.
For example, she said, “A call for snow removal should go to 311, not (Councilwoman Rudiak’s) office.”
According to Ms. Williams, collecting information and contacting the correct resource is only part of the formula for a successful block watch. Another part is getting the entire community on board, which she accomplished by going door to door on her street, to get to know her neighbors, pass out block watch pamphlets and exchange phone numbers.
“We have become a family,” she said. “We take care of each other.”
Some of the ways Kirk Avenue neighbors have taken care of each other include a neighbor-to-neighbor buddy system, a phone tree and an air horn distribution program, where elderly residents were given air horn devices to use in the event of a confrontation or other emergency.
Every house on Kirk Avenue, Ms. Williams noted, has a “BLOCKWATCH” sign in the window, “to let criminals know that we’re watching them, and that we’re not giving up.”
Also stressing residents should not give up was Zone 3 Crime Prevention Officer Christine Luffey, who attended the meeting, as she does each month, to provide crime stats and address resident issues.
Confronted with concerns about persistent problems, such as suspected drug activity on Westmont Street and the continued late-night ransacking of parked cars throughout the area, Officer Luffey said, “Keep calling the police.”
When several residents voiced they were dissatisfied because the problems have not yet been resolved, or because certain cases were held up and/or delayed in the legal process, Ms. Luffey continued:
“(The legal process) may be frustrating and time-consuming, but, in the end, it all works out. We just have to work the best that we can within the system we have. We must stay focused and keep the pressure on… If we throw our hands up in the air and say we’re sick of the system, (the offenders) have won and they’ll keep terrorizing our streets.
“All we can do is try, and keep trying until justice is served.”
Officer Luffey went on to describe several instances where she’s seen justice served, including her own personal account as a victim.
Emphasizing with residents, she told of a time, four years ago, when she was attacked by three neglected pit bulls while out walking her dogs with her daughter. Recounting the event with tears in her eyes, Officer Luffey said it “felt like forever” until the matter was closed, but she simply would not give up.
“If I can go through with it as a victim, and see it to the end, any of us can,” she said to close her story. “We’re all on the same boat.”
Stepping away from her personal life, and back to the professional, Officer Luffey presented police reports that showed how block watch activity and resident calls have helped curb criminal activity in the area.
After receiving complaints from the block watch about possible malfeasance at Characters Lounge in Carrick, the Nuisance Task Force went in on March 7, and ended up busting the joint for illegal gambling machines.
Calls to 911 resulted in arrests at the lounge on March 21, when a banned patron pulled a BB gun on the bartender; and at Brownsville Inn on March 29, when a large-scale fight broke out in the street outside the bar.
“Your feedback and calls alerted us to these problems,” Officer Luffey stated. “Keep up the good work. Keep calling… You’re the community police officers in your neighborhoods. You are the eyes and ears. When you see something, call (911) and let us know, and we’ll come out and take care of it for you.”
Councilwoman Rudiak let residents know that she, too, is helping take care of a big problem in the South Hills region.
Operating under different names, a company has been purchasing properties in the area, flipping them quickly and selling them to Israeli investors at a 30-40 percent markup. The company then goes on to manage the properties, without thoroughly screening tenants.
Ms. Rudiak said District Magistrate Richard King heard cases on this matter two weeks ago, and the company itself is currently being investigated for mortgage fraud.
“One way or another, we’ll stop their unlawful practices,” the councilwoman said.
In other news, several community calendar events were highlighted, as follows:
Liz Style, from the Office of Mayor Luke Ravenstahl, reminded residents of the “Redd Up” dates this month, April 19 – 21; visit http://www.pittsburghpa.gov/servepgh/reddupzone/, or call 412-255-2280, for the specific dates and locations in each neighborhood.
Ms. Style also mentioned the city-wide public safety meeting, to be held April 23 at East Liberty Presbyterian Church, with dinner served at 6 p.m. and a presentation on juvenile justice to begin at 6:30.
On April 30, Carrick High School will host a career day for its students. Cindy Falls, education chair for Carrick/Overbrook, said she’d like to see a variety of occupations presented at the fair. Ms. Falls invites interested professionals to contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org to discuss speaking at the event.
At 7 p.m. on May 7, the Carrick Community Council will hold its next public meeting, which will be held in the Concord Elementary School auditorium and will feature guest speaker Greg Jones, executive director of Economic Development South.