Meanwhile, in neighboring Haddonfield, burglaries have spiked 250 percent, including more than three-dozen reports of copper downspout thefts.
Rumblings in both communities reflect unease with the scope of these incidents, with a handful of residents inquiring about the viability of alternative policing measures.
At the Feb. 6 meeting of the Collingswood borough commissioners, Washington Avenue resident Earl Burak asked Mayor James Maley whether the borough should consider re-deputizing the citizen-led town watch the community had established in the 1970s.
“Considering the problems we’re having now with the break-ins and robberies and seniors getting beat up and cars being stolen, is there a possibility that the police force would need to get together and institute a town watch?” Burak asked. “It was good back in the 1970s.”
Maley responded that although he appreciated Burak’s enthusiasm, “most cops will tell you they’re not big fans of a town watch.”
Maley said that what residents ought to take away from the incidents Burak mentioned is their relatively prompt resolution at the hands of law enforcement professionals.
“Very shortly after we had these things, we caught the guys pretty quickly,” Maley said. “Even the vandalism we’ve had, we’ve generally been able to catch the guys.”
Rather than a militant citizenry, Maley said that what the town needs is people who are unafraid to call 911 at the first sign of trouble.
“If you see something that doesn’t look right, call the police,” Maley said. “Everybody needs to be a part of that.”
A creative approach
Bill Tourtellotte, 49, president of the Haddonfield Civic Association, said the town needs “fresh ideas [and] public involvement” to halt the thefts of copper downspouts.
Tourtellotte, who says his parents were part of the Haddonfield Town Watch in the late 1960s and early 1970s, advocated “a creative approach” to crime-busting.
“We need to figure out a way to catch these guys other than patrolling or someone calling to say a gutter is missing,” he said. “Maybe the neighborhood watch should come back.”
Haddonfield Police Chief John Banning said a neighborhood watch could supplement law enforcement with additional eyes and ears. In the age of the mobile phone, he said, everyone is a potential look-out.
“I think a neighborhood watch would be great,” Banning said. “The more eyes we have the better. The good thing now is just about everyone has cell phones. We used to need radios for neighborhood watches.”
But Collingswood Police Lt. Glenn A. Prince cautions that the enthusiasm associated with community policing can be mislaid in moments of excitement. The average citizen does not have the right to lay hands on anyone, he says, wary of the potential for acts of vigilantism. It is far better, he says, to call the professionals responsible for keeping the community safe.
“If you see something, our response times are second to none,” said Prince. “We are dedicated and committed to the community that we serve. Every call gets a response.”
Prince also pointed out that the majority of police officers employed by the borough of Collingswood either live in town or close by. Every Collingswood officer is assigned his or her own portable radio that they have even when off-duty.
“You have to remember that most of our police officers live here,” Prince said. “When I’m off duty, I’m still here. I patronize the local bank, the WaWa, the dry cleaner. It’s not uncommon on a police officer’s day off to see 40 people that you know.”
A way to help reduce costs
Collingswood saw the future of a likelier solution at that same commissioners meeting, when Maley and Collingswood police Chief Richard Sarlo swore into service Special Officer Class II Samuel Rocco. Rocco is the only Class II Special Officer in the Collingswood department.
A special officer “is trained in motor vehicle laws, first aid, criminal law, use of force and other basic areas,” according to NJlawman.com. Such officers are typically assigned to traffic enforcement, and are only permitted to carry firearms once they reach the Class II designation.
“The Special Officer Class II has full police powers but only while on duty,” the website says.
The savings of employing a special officer is significant; typically they serve at an hourly rate about $50 less than that of a full-time police officer, and are limited to part-time hours. Each municipality is allowed to designate one special officer to whom those hourly limitations do not apply when assigned to protect a public entity, such as a park or housing authority building.
Historically, Collingswood has hired its full-time officers from the pool of candidates that come from the special officer program, Prince said.
Maley described Rocco’s hiring as “a way to help reduce our costs while still trying to increase some of the policing and enforcement” in Collingswood, and Commissioner Michael Hall called it “another way to get people on the street.”