Q: I’m interested in starting a Neighborhood Watch Group, but I don’t know how to start or what it entails. Can you describe some of the steps?

A: A Neighborhood Watch is a great program to help deter crime, report suspicious activity and act as a liaison between the Santa Monica Police Department and the public they serve. It is unfortunate we cannot staff an officer on every block throughout the city, so we depend on you to help us out by providing information on suspicious circumstances. This can be persons looking into vehicles, loitering around residences or businesses, soliciting magazine sales, persons trying locked doors or peering into windows, a scream heard, or glass breaking. Each of these incidents and countless others warrant a phone call to the police department so that we may investigate the situation and determine the best course of action.

Any resident can belong to a Neighborhood Watch Group. Whether your group consists of your apartment, condominium, or townhouse complex, a neighborhood of single-family homes or a business or group of businesses, you can be part of one of the most effective citizen involvement programs around to prevent crime.

Now that we know how a Neighborhood Watch Group can help prevent crimes before they happen and who can be part of a Neighborhood Watch, how do you start one? Begin by enlisting several neighbors to form a planning committee. Once you form a committee, select a date, time and place that is convenient for most of your neighbors. You can meet in a home of a neighbor or a local community center. Publicize your meeting at least one week in advance with door-to-door fliers and follow-up with phone calls the day before.

The first meeting should include such topics as selecting a block captain. The block captain will act as a spokesperson for the group, a liaison between the police department and your Neighborhood Watch Group, recruit additional neighbors and maintain a list of all the current members. Along with the block captain, a co-captain should be recognized in case the captain is unavailable. Establish a list of concerns your neighborhood has and document any suspicious activity you may have seen in your area. After this is documented, contact the Santa Monica Crime Prevention Coordinator at (310) 458-8474 to set up a meeting with your group. The Crime Prevention Coordinator, along with your Neighborhood Resource Officer, will train the members in home security, observing activity, reporting suspicious activity and assist you with other helpful crime prevention tips.

Future meetings of your Neighborhood Watch should be set up on a regular basis. Host open forums that focus on current issues or hot topics that are interesting and relevant to you and your group. Keep the members of your group informed. When you see your neighbors, exchange information about any suspicious activity that you have seen or heard. Remember the main purpose of a Neighborhood Watch Group is to immediately report a crime or suspicious activity to the Santa Monica Police. Even a 5-minute delay can reduce the chance of us catching the criminal. You can report suspicious activity to the police department by calling our non-emergency line at (310) 458-8491, or in case of an emergency, dial 9-1-1 immediately. Dispatch personnel will ask you questions such as who was involved, what happened, where did it occur and when? Give them as much information as possible and be patient. While they are asking you questions, know that they are simultaneously dispatching patrol officers to your location and providing us with the information. Be as specific as possible.

Each Neighborhood Watch is different in the issues they face. But one common factor is safety and community livability. Everyone wants to come home to a clean, safe and peaceful neighborhood. Utilize your group members to work together and clean up litter, paint over graffiti, sweep sidewalks and remove accumulations of garbage. The city of Santa Monica offers such programs as graffiti removal (310 458-2231), street and sidewalk repair (310 458-8504), trash pick-up (310 458-2223) and Code Compliance (310 458-4984) to name a few. Santa Monica also offers a fast and easy way to report the aforementioned topics and more. For those of you who have a smart phone (Android or iPhone), visit iTunes or the Android Market and search for “GO SMGov.” With this app, you can take pictures of the graffiti, potholes, or other issues and we’ll utilize the GPS function to send the appropriate department to your location to handle the issue.

Last bit of advice, keep your group growing and going. It’s unfortunate and all too often, once a crime trend stops or a community crisis goes away, so does the enthusiasm for your Neighborhood Watch. The continued interest and involvement of you and your neighbors is important in keeping your community safe. So what are you waiting for? Get out there, meet your neighbors and help make Santa Monica the best crime prevention fighting team around.

This column was prepared by NRO Richard “Rick” Verbeck (Beat 4: Montana Avenue to I-10 Freeway, 20th Street to Ocean Avenue, which excludes the downtown area). He can be reached at (424) 200-0684.