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If you can improve the quality of life in your neighborhood, you might be taking a giant step forward in eliminating crime in your own backyard.

So says Joe Follendorf, a North Tonawanda police officer who is actively involved in his community's Neighborhood Watch program. He defines "quality of life" as being a philosophy that says "We're going to put the neighbors back into the neighborhood. We're going to watch over each other."

Follendorf said that while North Tonawanda does not have a high crime profile, it has pockets of opportunity that might invite crime to that community, something he and his fellow police force members are working hard to eliminate.

The program, which began in 1986, has evolved from just being a "crime alert" system, to a structured neighborhood organization providing community policing, he said.

"There are many things that our neighbors see every day that could be precursors of a problem," he said.

"If you know that your next-door neighbor goes to work at 8 a.m. and comes back at 4 p.m. and you notice his garage door is open at noon, there's probably something wrong.

"If the elderly lady across the street doesn't pick up her mail as she usually does, there may be a problem."

He says the responsibility of members of Neighborhood Watch is not to snoop on their neighbors or pry into their private lives, but to keep an eye open for anything that doesn't seem normal and report it to Neighborhood Watch leaders or the police.

Often, it's not a matter of crime, but a situation where potential problems could be avoided by taking action.

"Recently," he said, "neighbors reported that a large church in our community was being used at night by teenagers who hang out around the front steps. Now, we can go to the church and tell them we'll come by every night and chase the kids away. But, wouldn't it be more productive if the church would agree to invite the kids in to play basketball, maybe have them join some new church activities?"

He also mentioned a dead end street in one part of the community with poor signs. The street dead-ends at a playground. The potential problem was a car driving down the street and into the playground, perhaps injuring children.

Or a pile of leaves left ignored for many days by the Department of Public Works.

"Before you know it," he said, "some kid is going to start a leaf fire."

Those kinds of things that relate to the quality of life in the community can be handled through Neighborhood Watch program in the North Tonawanda Police Department Public Safety Office and by communicating with the appropriate city agency.

He said, "A number of years ago, the City Council initiated a curfew to stop kids from hanging out all night until 3 or 4 in the morning. That raised the question of improving the quality of life in our community and eliminating the opportunities for crime.

"As a result, the North Tonawanda Youth and Recreation Department has things going on now all year round, and we're bringing in more and more kids off the streets and into the programs.

"Maybe we can't address the big social issues, but we can get parents and the community involved."

Karen Anstey, secretary for Neighborhood Watch, has a husband and two small children, andbecame involved with the program about three years ago.

"We were having some problems in our neighborhood," she said, "and I attended one of their meetings. I've been involved with them ever since. I think it's a wonderful organization. They've taken the "Crime" out of Neighborhood Crime Watch, the organization's original name, and we've become a community that watches over each other and shares our neighborhood concerns."

As the Watch Coordinator for her group of 500 neighbors -- one of six groups in the city -- she says she gets calls almost every week from people who have seen or heard something but are too shy to call the police themselves.

"I take their call, fill out a little form, and turn it over to the police for their investigation," she said.

"I've met a lot of neighbors I never knew before and have made many new friends. We meet as a social group might meet, exchanging our experiences and getting to know each other better," Mrs. Anstey said.

Follendorf said, "Our program is teaching neighbors to watch out for each other. To let any criminal out there know that if their potential victim can't call the police, their neighbor will. We're just doing those things we need to do to protect each other. That can make all the difference in the world.

"When you have 35,000 people watching over their own neighborhoods, that's a lot better than a few cops on the street."