Right before Labor Day, almost 400 residents of Colonial Acres received a disturbing e-mail. One of their neighbors, grandfather Rick Green, had been run over — in broad daylight — near his house.
Over the next few days, the neighbors received updates on the situation the same way:
that Green was at the Med; that it looked like he had been hit intentionally; that he had suspected drug dealing at a nearby home and had started taking pictures of visiting cars; that he had been released from the Med; and, sadly, that he passed away September 3rd at home.
The Colonial Acres Neighborhood Association (CANA) has been using e-mail updates for four years, but the bulletins traditionally detailed property thefts and suspicious activities, not violent crimes.
"There's no question that there was a common sense of anger and outrage and sympathy. It was a violation of the whole neighborhood," said Ron, CANA Neighborhood Watch and Safety co-chair. (Citing safety concerns, CANA leaders asked that their last names not be used.)
The e-mail list, which began with about 50 subscribers, helped to disseminate the information as quickly and as accurately as possible.
"I believe in sharing information," said group founder David, a middle-age man with curly, light-colored hair. "I saw an unmet need."
David now acts as the group's "switchboard operator," taking tips about suspicious activity and sending them — along with information on upcoming events and possible developments — to the entire group. The end result is a virtual neighborhood watch that supplements traditional efforts.
"In any neighborhood watch," David said, "ideally you have block captains, and it's really localized. If you don't have that, this is the next best thing."
Networking by e-mail also seems a natural extension. CANA isn't the only local neighborhood group online, but one of the reasons they agreed to be interviewed was to share the idea with groups that aren't. If people can fall in love via the Internet or have MySpace friends, why not connect with your neighbors the same way?
"People don't go out and meet their neighbors like they should. This is a way of doing it virtually," Ron said. "I think it adds a sense of connectivity."
Though a live neighborhood watch includes seeing someone going into your neighbor's backyard and calling police, the e-mail group serves more to identify crime trends within the neighborhood. In one case, residents started seeing several people in a pick-up truck driving through the neighborhood. They shared their suspicions via e-mail, and then other people noticed the truck, too.
"As a result, they were stopped by police," David said. "They got them for an expired license, and they were told they were being watched by the police as a result."
CANA leaders also use local law enforcement databases to "watch" known criminals who have a history of targeting Colonial Acres.
"The public is the first line of defense. I think David's list makes use of that aspect of awareness," Ron said. "We have three tools other than the police: awareness, prevention, and self-defense. Sans police, you have to take care of yourself and your neighbors."
Unfortunately, that seems to be what Rick Green was trying to do.
After Green's death, driver Untonio Ratliff was charged with vehicular homicide and leaving the scene of an accident involving death, both felonies.
When the coroner's report came back last week, however, it determined that Green's official cause of death was cardiac arrest. Ratliff's charges were amended to aggravated assault and leaving the scene of an accident involving injury.
"It's had me pretty upset that they lowered the charges," Wanda told attendees of a CANA neighborhood meeting last week, citing the statements of two witnesses. "It was obvious that it was intentional. The car went down the street, did a U-turn, and then came back at him."
The three acknowledge that in the wake of Green's death, they have some safety concerns.
"There were five young men out there watching this happen," said Wanda, a slim woman with short brown hair. "I wouldn't want to see a dog run over, much less a human. There are five young men out there who obviously thought nothing of injuring someone like that. That's a scary thought."
But, even in a city recently named by the FBI as the worst metro area for violent crime, the group says the potential of their virtual neighborhood watch far outweighs the risk.
"We're angry, sad," Ron said. "It's natural to feel some sense of fear. But that's not going to keep us from continuing to do what we need to do to keep our neighborhood safe and watch out for each other."