Patrol founder is her neighborhood's keeper Police say group has helped cut crime

September 07, 1998|By Dail Willis | Dail Willis,SUN STAFF

It's 9: 30 p.m. and Sharon Lewetzki is ready to take on the night.

Coffee cup in one hand, cigarettes and cell phone in the other, she tucks a two-way radio under her arm and kisses her husband, Al, goodbye. Then she climbs into her maroon Aerostar, pausing by the van's door to affix an oversized magnetic sign reading "Norwood-Holabird Citizens on Patrol."

It's time to drive and scrutinize.

"Is that our Peeping Tom? Yes!" she says exultantly, peering through the windshield at a lone man walking aimlessly along a dark street. Several area residents have reported a man looking into their windows recently, and Lewetzki has seen this fellow, who doesn't live in the area, walking around a lot.

She quickly notifies police, but the officer who responds to her call does not see any illegal activity. So the peeper will be back.

So will Lewetzki. The 38-year-old mother of three girls is the founder and president of Norwood-Holabird Citizens on Patrol, one of the most successful such groups in Baltimore County. She and 36 others patrol their neighborhood, looking for anything amiss. If they see a drug deal, or a door ajar, or a suspicious person, they call police -- becoming an extra set of eyes and ears for patrol officers who are stretched thin.

Police say Lewetzki's group helped hold down crime in a working-class neighborhood in the shadow of Dundalk Community College. The neighborhood was faltering two years ago, and property crime -- the "broken window" blight that signals trouble -- was creeping up.

"Two summers ago, we were seeing all kinds of problems -- burglaries, minor acts of vandalism," says Capt. Michael J. DiPaula, who heads the North Point Precinct, which includes Lewetzki's neighborhood. "Now, Norwood-Holabird is a real tranquil neighborhood. We've seen a difference."

Police records document that difference. For the first eight months of 1996, 29 breaking-and-enterings were reported in Norwood-Holabird. For the same period this year, the number fell to 19. Sixty-nine thefts were reported for the eight-month period in 1996. That number dropped to 53 for the same period this year. Destruction of property declined from 39 instances in 1996 to 31 this year.

On this midweek summer night, it's quiet. First stop is the neighborhood 7-Eleven, which gives COP members free java.

"Coffee is a good thing," Lewetzki says with characteristic intensity. Caffeine, nicotine and a generous sense of community responsibility will keep her wired and watchful as the night wears on into morning.

For the next three hours, she drives down one quiet street after another, countless rounds on a 2.5-mile loop that takes her across the bustle of Merritt Boulevard, through dark and faintly sinister parking lots of aging apartment complexes and back down the streets of bungalows and single-story homes where she started.

"I can cover this area in 17 minutes from one end to the other, crisscrossing every street," she says. Last year, she logged 6,600 miles on patrol.

Lewetzki, a banquet server and bartender for the Sheraton hotel chain, has lived in Norwood-Holabird for 10 years. She became a neighborhood activist in 1996 after vandals defecated in her backyard pool, then threw a brick into it that broke the liner.

"When they did that stuff in my pool, I'd had it," she says, still bristling at the memory.

She polled her neighbors to see if anyone else had had trouble with crime. They did: "I talked to 21 houses -- 17 had had a problem."

She asked the Baltimore County Police Department for help. Officer Lindsay B. Hall Jr. suggested a neighborhood block watch.

"Then he mentioned Citizens on Patrol -- and the next thing I know, I'm riding around with a mag light and a radio," she says with a rueful smile.

"There was a seed there, and I kind of sprinkled water on it," is how Hall remembers it.

Two years later, the seed has become a community garden.

"When I got into this, I knew probably two people on my street," Lewetzki says. "Now I know them all."

And they know her. She puts out a bimonthly newsletter about the neighborhood, hands out leaflets, attends community meetings to spread the word about preventing crime. She enlists her neighbors to work in carwashes, bake sales, dinners, golf tournaments and any other kind of fund-raiser she can devise. She approaches people new in the neighborhood to see if they want to join her patrol.

It's almost an obsession, she acknowledges -- she logs in unofficial patrols anytime she's coming home from work.

"You get hooked. I do not come straight home, I can't do it. I have to see if the drug dealers are out," she says.

She shares patrol duty with a diverse group of residents -- stay-at-home mothers, a 65-year-old man and even -- in the summer -- neighborhood kids on bikes.

She also has made the group almost financially independent -- "My theory is, this neighborhood needs to bail itself out" rather than rely on grant money, she said.

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