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Weakening the Watch

Police budget cuts hurt neighborhood programs.

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As the Memphis Police Department's Neighborhood Watch coordinator for the East Precinct, Dot Rongey does more than assist citizens launch neighborhood watch groups. She also oversees the precinct's Citizens Police Academy, organizes neighborhood watch activities, writes a newsletter, and helps citizens who come to her with community problems. And now, thanks to city budget cutbacks, she's only got 10 hours a week to get all that work done.

As of October 2nd, neighborhood watch coordinators in each of the city's eight police precincts have been forced to cut their work hours in half. Previously, coordinators worked 20 hours a week at $8.40 an hour, but when the Police Department lost $4.8 million to cutbacks, the neighborhood watch program took part of the blow.

According to Sgt. Vince Higgins, public relations officer for the Police Department, the city is reducing expenses to make up for its revenue deficit by reducing hours for part-time employees as well as trimming materials and supplies. By doing this, he says they won't have to lay off full-time employees.

"We haven't seen our coordinator in a week," said Bob Morgan, president of the Southeast Memphis Betterment Association (SEMBA), a community organization that relies on the coordinators to set up neighborhood watch groups for the Parkway Village and Fox Meadows areas. "We're doing our best to pacify the people who call in to set up a watch group. She'll get back with them at some point when she has time."

Organizing a neighborhood watch group requires two meetings with a coordinator, when information is distributed. Then the coordinator is responsible for ordering neighborhood watch street signs for each group.

Rongey said she's now unable to help individual concerned citizens because she's rarely in the office when they need her. She's currently spending about six of her allotted 10 hours on the Citizens Police Academy each week. When she began the job five years ago, she worked a maximum of 30 hours a week.

"A lot of people rely on me because they know that when they have a problem in their community, I'll help them fix it. They depend on me, and now I'm not there," said Rongey.

People come to her with problems ranging from community concerns to unfair police treatment. A few days ago, Rongey handled a call from a woman who was scared of a vagrant wandering in her neighborhood. Then she dealt with a lady who felt she was unfairly given a ticket for not wearing a seatbelt.

"It's sad that we can't be there to help people anymore," she said. "You get a lot of gratification out of knowing you're helping someone."

Morgan said SEMBA recently wrote a letter to Mayor Willie Herenton asking him to request an additional $500 from about 70 donors who are already making $1,000 contributions to the city. They haven't heard anything back.

"If 70 people contributed, that would equal $30,000, and we could have our coordinators back," Morgan said. "These cutbacks are kind of defeating any new community organizations that want to start watch groups. With the more crime that's reported, the more interest there is setting up these groups. We're taking away critical mass."

The neighborhood watch program does have one full-time supervisor who works out of the South Precinct. Rongey said that person is supposed to pick up the slack left by the cuts.

"At the South Precinct, I don't know how she's supposed to know what's going on at the East Precinct or the North Precinct," said Rongey. "It's like the city's cutting off its nose to spite its face."

E-mail: bphillips@memphisflyer.com

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