Alarmed at rising crime, Forest Beach starts neighborhood watch

astice@islandpacket.comOctober 27, 2012 

Creating a neighborhood watch isn't about bringing out the torches and pitchforks.

It's more about bringing out the snack trays.

Serving food at meetings is one of the keys to keeping a neighborhood watch going in Beaufort County, where many have gone extinct, according to Staff Sgt. Mike Jennings of the Sheriff's Office.

That was part of the message he brought to a group of Hilton Head Island homeowners who want to protect their neighborhood after reports of rising crime and the death of an 8-year-old boy caught in the crossfire of a gunfight.

About 50 residents of North and South Forest Beach neighborhoods turned out for Wednesday's meeting, where Jennings offered tips for making their streets safer.

John Robinson, a South Forest Beach homeowner, said he is tired of reading the crime reports and of hearing neighbors' fears about walking on the beach.

Eleanor Lightsey O'Key, a member of the Forest Beach Owners Association Board, said the shooting of 8-year-old Khalil Singleton last month also was a wakeup call.

According to second-quarter crime statistics for Hilton Head, South Forest Beach has had 67 reports of burglaries, thefts and car break-ins -- more than any other area of the island. North Forest Beach is a close second with 50 property crimes reported.

Jennings said neighborhood watch groups that are "all about crime" often flame out.

Property crimes spike and fall, Jennings said. When the problem goes away, so does the watch. "Especially in Beaufort County, they disappear very quickly," Jennings said.

The fledgeling Forest Beach group will be the only active neighborhood watch on Hilton Head, he said.

That's where the food comes in.

To keep up the enthusiasm and attendance at meetings, homeowners should make the watch a social activity and avoid meeting too much or for too long, Jennings said. Establishing phone trees or email listservs helps homeowners stay in touch without interfering with their schedules.

The longest-running local watch he knows of is in Sun City Hilton Head, and it isn't about crime at all. Instead, its members keep an eye on each other in case medical problems arise. They call authorities when they don't see a neighbor for a while, for example.

Jennings encouraged the Forest Beach group to gather to fix potholes, or let each other know when they will be away on vacation.

Some residents at Wednesday's meeting shared crime-prevention tips.

Robinson said he has started keeping his car key fob on his bedside table. If he hears rustling outside, he pushes the panic button -- triggering his car alarm to scare off potential lurkers and alert neighbors.

Dawn Murphy, who manages Forest Beach rental properties, said she leaves the lights on in her rental homes when they're empty.

"I think that would be huge," she said. "On some of these blocks, it's pitch black and there are no residents."

Because of town light ordinances, there isn't much Forest Beach dwellers can do about the darkness, Jennings said. But he offered to provide security assessments, in which he walks around homes and points out what might make them attractive to burglars -- things like shrubbery obscuring windows or lack of motion lights.

The most important safety tip is to report suspicious activity or people, even if it turns out to be a false alarm.

"We'd rather get the call and have it be nothing, than not get the call and have it be something," Jennings said.

Follow reporter Allison Stice at twitter.com/LCBlotter.

Related content:

Fed-up Estates at Westbury residents organize watch, Nov. 13, 2011

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