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Louisville Residents Troubled By Crime Turn To Block Watches

Mary Ellen Cassidy was terrified.

She was home alone when intruders slipped in as she slept and stole nearly everything. She was shaken and scared afterward, and she said she began to suffer panic attacks and no longer felt safe alone.

"I just couldn't stay in that house," she said.

So Cassidy moved from Jeffersontown to the Highlands, where she's lived now for more than two decades. But petty crime is still a problem in her otherwise quiet neighborhood near Atherton High School. To fight it, she wants to start a Neighborhood Block Watch group.

And she's not alone.

More than 50 people attended a recent block watch workshop hosted by Metro Council members from the districts that encompass the Louisville Metro Police Department's Fifth Division, where property crime drives police activity.

More than 60 percent of the division's roughly 2,300 reported crimes this year are listed as burglary, vandalism, vehicle break-ins or thefts, and drug or alcohol violations, according to police data.

Councilman Brandon Coan, a Democrat who represents District 8 — which includes much of the police department's Fifth Division — is optimistic about the effect block watch groups could have on these types of crime.

At present, just about two dozen of the nearly 1,200 blocks in District 8 have registered block watch groups with the city's police department. Coan wants 600 such groups registered in the coming years.

"We have the capability to do it," he said.

But he acknowledges it can be difficult to maintain such a group — they're time consuming and require residents to get out of their comfort zones and meet neighbors.

Still, police officials support those who want to reignite block watch groups and get more people engaged with law enforcement. Doing so is more helpful than complaining about crime on social media, said Major Shera Parks, the Fifth Division commander.

Residential crime complaints that flood social media networks like Facebook or Nextdoor can generate online discussion, but they're rarely reported to police, Parks said.

The discussion can also often go astray and sometimes result in exaggerations.

"It's like the telephone game from when you were a child," Parks said.

Building enthusiasm for block watch groups to spread to other areas of the city — areas tormented by violent crime — could be difficult, said Metro Councilwoman Barbara Sexton Smith, a Democrat who represents District 4.

Smith's district includes neighborhoods such as Russell and Smoketown, areas that account for nearly a quarter of all gunshots reported by police this year. Fear of violence would make people apprehensive about getting out of their homes and walking blocks on a regular basis, Smith said.

"They're afraid," she said.

In District 4, blocks are mixed with churches, halfway houses, businesses, industry, rental units and vacant properties, Smith said. She said she knows plenty of residents in her district who are ready and willing to lead the charge. But getting organized is key.

That’s what Mary Ellen Cassidy is ready to do.

"We just want a good, healthy, family-oriented neighborhood," she said. "That's what we all want."

Jacob Ryan is the managing editor of the Kentucky Center for Investigative reporting. He's an award-winning investigative reporter who joined LPM in 2014. Email Jacob at jryan@lpm.org.

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