Sussex eyes neighborhood watch

| 21 Feb 2012 | 10:48

    SUSSEX BOROUGH n Plagued by a constant stream of complaints from residents and shopkeepers about quality of life crimes in the downtown area, the mayor and council took the first step earlier this week to organize a neighborhood watch program. Sussex Borough's Main Street and downtown area have been a long-festering problem for the community, attracting a core group of problematic residents whose behavior can sometimes border on vagrancy. One Main Street resident said she has seen people urinating and defecating on the sidewalk and in the Decker Commons area adjacent to Fountain Square. Other issues brought to the council's attention include public drinking, intoxication, drug use, abusive language and petty thefts and property destruction. With an influx of new business and a community spirit fueled in part by the re-opening of the Crescent Theater by the Tri-State Actor's Theatre, officials are hopeful that the community will get involved to police some of the worst behavior. "I'm constantly getting complaints about Main Street," said Mayor Katherine Little. "People stop me at Church, in the A&P, wherever I go." Council approved a measure that permits a neighborhood watch committee to organize an open public meeting for interested residents. The committee of Councilmen James Ezzo and John Stendor, and resident Laurie Walsh recently met with the State Police and plan to hold an organizational meeting next month at the Sussex Firehouse. No date has been set yet for the meeting, but residents interesting in getting involved were asked to contact a member of the committee for more information. " We need volunteers," Stendor said. Two representatives of the State Police attended the council meeting last Monday and outlined what is involved in running a neighborhood watch program. Sgt. Wendy Cooney said that the borough needs to post signs in the downtown area that outline local ordinances. "First get everyone on the same page as to what's expected," Cooney said. She also recommended that the borough's newly hired parking enforcement official work in uniform to show an official presence downtown. Since Sussex does not have a police chief or police department, the town cannot easily establish an auxiliary or special police force. Cooney noted that if the town were to partner with a police chief in a neighboring town, auxiliary police could be established, but, Cooney added, "an auxiliary is one step above a neighborhood watch. Concerned citizens are the next best thing." Cpl. Ken Wise told the council that a neighborhood watch program at High Point Country Club in Montague has been very successful in addressing a growing crime problem. Wise called the High Point program, "a fantastic program," and said the need for a law enforcement presence in the community was greatly reduced by the group's work. He said the watch group has become the eyes and ears of the State Police in the neighborhood. Cooney said a similar effort in Sussex could be very helpful, as "law enforcement can't be here 24-7 to see what goes on." He said a successful effort would also involve local store owners and business people. He added that the Augusta Barracks of the New Jersey State Police are already focused on the downtown area, with both an undercover and overt police presence. Special warrants details are being run in the community to seek out wanted individuals, and police officials are considering bicycle patrols in the downtown area. Training for those interested in joining a watch program would likely be brief. Follow-up training could take place as common needs or new issues are identified. A watch group could be started with as few as two people, but borough officials hope the response will be much larger. Citizens could get involved in the watch group even if they do not patrol. Trooper Wise noted that one of the most active members of a watch program in Hackensack is a an elderly female who just watches her street and takes note of outsiders and potential drug traffic on her block. Cooney said that by addressing quality of life problems the community can avoid larger problems. "Quality of life issues, if not taken care of, can lead to other things," he said. "Quality of life problems are the number one issue we deal with in law enforcement."