Downtown Smithfield residents form neighborhood watch

Published 12:42 pm Wednesday, June 1, 2016

By Matt Leonard

Staff Writer

A group of downtown residents living on Cary and Main streets are starting a neighborhood watch after multiple car break-ins, a Molotov cocktail, vandalism, spray painting and what several residents believe to have been gunshots.

“Smithfield by day, Smithfield by night,” is how Bonnie Pryor, a Main Street resident, described the seeming clash between the tourist-oriented downtown area and what some residents are experiencing once the sun goes down.

On Friday night, May 20, Pryor called 911 after hearing what she thought was a gunshot around 11 p.m. Other neighbors also heard what they thought was a gunshot. {mprestriction ids=”1,2,3,4,5,6″}

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Around midnight the next night, Pryor went to let her dogs out.

“There was a gaggle of eight to 10 teenage boys with flashlights,” Pryor said, adding that one neighbor caught a boy rummaging through her car around the same time.

The boys ran into a nearby parking lot after she opened the door.

She said the Smithfield Police Department had stepped up patrols in the area, which she appreciates, but she would like for them to add a security camera to the street to help catch people in the act.

“They patrol here a lot,” she said, “but when they hit and when stuff is happening is not always the same. I think they need to put up some cameras.”

According to Chief of Police Steve Bowman, that is exactly what they have been doing. The Smithfield Police Department has been using equipment from the Virginia Marine Police to monitor the area, but Bowman said this had yet to result in an arrest or lead.

He said the problems in the corridor are new and, according to witness testimony, the suspects are teenagers.

“We know there is a problem,” he said. “But we don’t think it is wide spread.”

Pryor said most residents and tourists aren’t aware of the problems they are experiencing on their street late at night — she said a lot of it happens between midnight and 2 a.m.

“We’re not going to tell the tourists ‘hey, don’t walk out after dark,’” she said.

Judy Winslow, the director of tourism in Smithfield, said she hopes the incidents are isolated and believes the police would do their best to prevent further situations.

“In this day and age you can’t be too careful,” Winslow said, “But I’m not sure that makes it a dangerous place.”

She added that, comparatively speaking, it would take a lot for her to consider Smithfield an unsafe town.

Adam Young has lived on Cary Street for five years. He lives there with his family and said their car has been broken into three times in the past few months.

“One time it was at 4:30 in the afternoon,” he said. A neighbor on their porch yelled at the teens upon witnessing the break-in and they scattered from the car, Young said.

He said it is hard for the police to catch anyone because there are so many places for suspects to run.

“They’d just have to catch them in the act,” he said.

He suspects these problems would happen regardless of where he lived, “even in Smithfield.”

“It isn’t fun having your car broken into,” he said. “But there are worse things that could happen, so we try to stay positive.”

In February, one resident woke up to a Molotov cocktail burning in the middle of the street. In March, another resident had a profanity spray painted on her car.

During the recent Vintage Market, visitors carrying their purchases back to their cars seemed puzzled to find the resident scrubbing the obscenity off her car.

Pryor said things have gotten better on the street recently after a tenant in an apartment complex on the corner of Cary and Main streets was evicted. She said she witnessed what could have been illegal activity on a regular basis prior to the eviction.

Pryor is currently working on getting the information on the neighborhood watch out to the residents within the group’s boundaries. After that, block captains will be assigned and residents will be taught how to properly report crimes.

The neighborhood watch is organized though the Smithfield Police Department, a service the department has been providing for 25 years, according to information the department provided Pryor.

“Neighborhood watch groups typically focus on observation and awareness as a means of preventing crimes and employ strategies that range from simply promoting social interaction to watching out for each other,” the info packet says.

Within the next few weeks, the residents also want to have a “take back the night” event, but not to be confused with the Take Back the Night nonprofit focused on ending sexual assault.

“We want to try and get residents from this watch district to sit out on their front porch on a Saturday night from 11 p.m. to 1 a.m. — or as late as they can manage,” she said. “Have out candles, a lantern, a flashlight, be present and let everyone know we’re here and we’re awake.”

Disclaimer: The Smithfield Times Managing Editor Diana McFarland is participating in the neighborhood watch.  {/mprestriction}