The year 2012 has been unusually difficult for neighborhood-watch groups everywhere.
A man in Florida, George Zimmerman, stands accused of killing unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin in the course of an overzealous "watch" one night. Another watch member in northeast Philadelphia, David Toledo, is accused of slashing tires on dozens of cars in his neighborhood even as he publicly warned the unknown perpetrator would be found. And though the film comedy The Watch (formerly titled Neighborhood Watch) doesn't come out until July 27, advance promotional footage of it has treated the concept of the watch with mock gravity.
Still, Lower Merion Community Watch leaders have had another concern, closer to home, for much longer than just this year: It's as difficult to recruit and keep members and staff shifts as it's ever been.
'They wanted to do something'
Matt Peskin joined Lower Merion Community Watch in 1978, its second year, then started the National Association of Town Watch in 1981. He runs both organizations today, and he has seen the ups and downs of resident participation over the years.
At the Lower Merion group's busiest in the early 1980s, Peskin estimates, about 500 township residents were active community watch members.
"Crime rates were really high and people were nervous, and they wanted to do something," Peskin told Patch in a recent interview at his Wynnewood office.
That active roster is about 100 to 150 names long now. Fewer people seem willing to relinquish free time, Peskin said.
Kevin Murphy of the Merion Civic Association took community watch training a year ago, and though he hasn't patrolled, he has worked to recruit, getting about a dozen new members so far.
"People get involved when they find it's not a huge thing," Murphy said.
Those who volunteer for shifts can either drive around on patrol or be the Lower Merion Police Department station contact point for people on patrol who want to know whether what they're seeing requires police attention.
Any response to an incident must begin with direction from police. Murphy expressed sadness and disbelief about the Zimmerman-Martin encounter in Florida, saying, "All the things that went wrong there are what they tell (community watch members) not to do."
The typical volunteer does a 3-hour shift once every three months, Peskin said. Daytime shifts usually involve patrolling neighborhoods for (mostly) signs of possible burglaries. At night, the focus is more on visiting closed businesses and public buildings.
Just as it is for professional police officers, spotting crimes oneself is extremely rare, Peskin said. But at least two of the group's volunteers have had their moments.
About 10 years ago, a community watch member helped break up a Bryn Mawr burglary in progress. And three years ago, Peskin recalled, another volunteer witnessed an armed robbery at the Sunoco on City Avenue, followed the getaway car into Philadelphia while talking with police on the radio, then saw about 10 police cars converge on the suspects a minute later at ... another gas station.
'In the heyday'
Seniors make up more of the active roster than ever, and lately more day shifts are taken than night shifts, Peskin said. The geography of the patrols has changed, too.
"In the heyday, it was spread all over the place. Now there's more activity to the east and around City Avenue," Peskin said. "At the (sparse residential) western end, it's hard to patrol that."
Bea Flack has been a community watch volunteer since 1985, or one-third of her 81 years, all of them spent in Belmont Hills.
At first, she patrolled at night, once her older kids were old enough to look after the younger ones. Later, she did day patrols two Tuesdays a month, always driving down every street in Belmont Hills while another volunteer looked around for anything amiss.
"I always did the driving," Flack said. "The past couple years, my eyesight isn't as great, so I was working in the office. If (people on patrol) have any problem, they call me, and I just refer it to a police officer."
Flack, now a member of the community watch's board of directors, was asked why participation hasn't returned to the levels of the 1970s and 1980s.
"I wish I knew," Flack replied. "The only time (residents) seem to get interested is when something happens on their street or home, but we don't have that many problems."
In 35 years, about 1,100 people have joined Lower Merion Community Watch and patrolled about 581,000 miles, Peskin said.
The community watch president has seen a lot in 34 years. Still, he has never gotten accustomed to how often police brief him about thefts in which the vehicle or home had been left unlocked.
"I find it absolutely remarkable," Peskin said. "I cannot relate."
The National Association of Town Watch has 15,000 member groups in all 50 states, and in 1984, it started the neighborhood safety event National Night Out. Visit the website for NATW to get more information on National Night Out. A local event is scheduled for 6-9 p.m. Aug. 7 at the parking lot across from Ruby's Diner in Suburban Square, Ardmore.