HAVERHILL — Members of one neighborhood watch group said they thought police had abandoned them after priorities changed and officers who had participated in a Community Action Team were reassigned to more pressing matters.
Police said they shifted the CAT team's mission to a more proactive approach to combating gangs and gang violence.
But then the neighborhood group learned that police still are there for them, and also for other groups who police say are their eyes and ears in the fight against crime.
"To be successful in combating crime, police need relationships with the community," Police Capt. Stephen Doherty said. "No one has a better grasp on what's happening in a neighborhood than the people who live in it."
For the past several years, officers assigned to the CAT team had regularly attended meetings of neighborhood watch groups, including the Historic Highlands Neighborhood Association that met monthly.
Lynda Brown, president of that association, said by working closely with police, trouble can be prevented before it gets out of hand.
"If you turn a blind eye to things that are happening, there are certain people who will take advantage of that," she said. "By establishing positive relationships with police, it benefits both sides."
She said the association formed a few years ago to bring residents together on many fronts, including adopting parks in the neighborhood for beautification, organizing the decorating of a Christmas tree in White's Park on Mill Street, holding block parties in the summer, creating a neighborhood watch, and working with other groups looking to make the city a safer place to live.
"Police began coming to our monthly meetings shortly after we formed," she said. "We usually have an agenda of a few things we are focusing on, including neighborhood safety, which is our number one reason for creating a neighborhood watch."
She said each meeting's attendance averaged anywhere from a dozen to 40 or so residents, plus one or more officers on the CAT team.
"Some of the conversations with police included ways of keeping our homes safe by installing security cameras and lights, not leaving valuables in our cars, locking our car doors, and reporting suspicious behavior to police," she said.
Brown said that over time, more residents in the Highlands began taking an active role in asking questions of police. In turn, they have become more comfortable interacting with law enforcement officials.
"By asking police to do things such as conducting drive-by patrols, and by people knowing that we, as neighbors, are on the lookout for any type of questionable activity, I think these things serve as a deterrent to negative activities," she said. "If there's anything police taught us, it's to be proactive and to show criminals they can't come into our neighborhood and take over."
The group also developed a phone tree, whereby members report suspicious behavior to one another to heighten awareness.
"Our phone tree works really well in watching out for our fellow neighbors," Brown said.
The group took a summer break and plans to begin meeting again soon.
"At the same time we were planning to honor police for their support of our neighborhood, we learned that police were refocusing the efforts of the CAT team," she said. "It was startling to us and we wondered what would happen without having these great officers coming to our meetings."
A conversation with Doherty eased their concerns.
"We are not abandoning you, as we are still here maintaining a positive and collaborative relationship with your group, the Mt. Washington Alliance and the community at large," Doherty told Brown and association secretary Justine Maguire when they dropped by the police station to present Certificates of Appreciation to officers Sgt. John Rosario, patrolman Adam Durkee, patrolman Eric MacKinnon, and Doherty for their support.
"Although the CAT team has refocused its efforts, officers can still come to our meetings and we will still have an ongoing relationship with police," Brown said. "Once we heard that we still had the support of police, it was great relief."
Capt. Robert Pistone, who serves as the liaison between neighborhood groups and police, told Brown and Maguire that they cannot do their jobs without partnerships with residents.
"We need to keep these relationships going," Pistone said.