Durham after dark

Neighborhood watch programs shine spotlight on community policing

Durham Patrol’s efforts to stop crime in the small community include nightly stops at Durham High School.

Durham Patrol’s efforts to stop crime in the small community include nightly stops at Durham High School.

Photo by Brittany Waterstradt

About a decade ago, the community of Durham was gripped by a spate of late-night criminal activity, recalls long-time resident Frank Bettencourt. With no dedicated police force of their own, residents relied on the thinly spread Butte County Sheriff’s Office for after-hours patrols and “smash and grab”-style thefts, home and business burglaries and vandalism were becoming nearly nightly occurrences, Bettencourt said.

Bettencourt, a retired car salesman, was moved to take action after he was personally victimized—a gun was stolen from a locked box in the garage of the home he shares with his wife and grandchildren. So, in April 2007, along with neighbor and Cal Fire retiree Claude Evans, Bettencourt founded the Durham Patrol, a community watchdog group dedicated to deterring crime with nightly citizen patrols.

“We wanted the county to know that Durham was no longer asleep,” Bettencourt said during a recent Friday night patrol, which started from his home around 9:30 p.m. and continued through primarily sleeping residential neighborhoods and the downtown business district before looping through the Durham High campus and Durham Community Park.

The Durham Patrol consists of roughly a dozen regular volunteers, most working in pairs and taking turns driving the area a few nights a month each. On a typical night, a team covers the entire town of Durham at least once, as well as several outlying areas of the community. These rounds have been driven by members every night, seven days a week, since the group was formed.

The organization has built a strong rapport within the neighborhoods it patrols, and many members are on a first-name basis with local business owners, teachers and the staff of the BCSO. Such relationships are important to the day-to-day (or rather, night-to-night) operations of the Durham Patrol. On this particular night, Bettencourt spoke to custodians at Durham High School about recent problems with trespassing on campus, and advised them to contact the Sheriff’s Office if the intrusions continued.

Advising school staff wasn’t the only action on the streets of Durham that night; during the patrol, Bettencourt reported a suspicious-looking vehicle that was apparently abandoned. The Durham Patrol has a policy to report all such encounters because, as Bettencourt said, “It could be anything. You just never know.”

Though Bettencourt and company are always on the lookout for suspicious situations and wrong-doers, the incident most commonly reported of late, he said, has been cows wandering into roadways after dark, creating a potential hazard for drivers.

While some neighborhood-watch organizations in Northern California—such as the Cottonwood Community Watch—have been accused of questionable conduct bordering on vigilantism (see “Cottonwood Constitutionalists,” cover story, Dec. 12, 2013), the Durham Patrol’s credo is simply to observe and report, not to engage with potential criminals. It is the policy of the organization not to even step out of the car in potentially dangerous situations, but rather to act as a second set of eyes for the BCSO.

Bettencourt said that, while some members of the Durham Patrol have permits to carry firearms, he does not believe that they are armed during patrols on a regular basis. The choice to carry a gun or any other sort of defensive weapon is left up to the members, and, in Bettencourt’s words, “depends on the night.” They also maintain a “safe house” at Cal Fire Station 45 in downtown Durham, where patrol members are instructed to seek assistance if they feel that they are in danger.

Driving through Durham at night, the patrol’s most noticeable effect is on the lights. Members have spearheaded an unofficial campaign in the community to get businesses and residents to leave a light on after dark as a deterrent to criminals.

On the grounds of Durham High School, for instance, Bettencourt said he has personally seen to a change.

“When the Durham Patrol started, this campus was dark,” he explained. “It was unbelievable, and they were getting hit pretty hard with vandalism, so I went to talk to the principal, the superintendent, and the powers that be about it.”

During one particular incident, a hateful message was scrawled across the face of an entire wall of the school. On another occasion, the air-conditioning system was targeted and, by Bettencourt’s estimate, $6,000 worth of copper wiring and parts were stolen. In response to occurrences like these, with the Durham Patrol’s prodding, Durham High has both repaired existing lights and installed new ones. Bettencourt said he believes that effort has led to a reduction in theft and vandalism on campus.

“Light is not the criminal’s best friend,” Bettencourt said. “Darkness is.”

First-year Durham High Principal Terry Bennett supports the work that the Durham Patrol is doing, both on and off campus. “Good community policing is about relationships,” he said. “There have been incidents before, and from what I understand having the Durham Patrol has reduced some of those incidents.”

The Durham Patrol is not the only group of concerned citizens taking action in Butte County. In Oroville, the Mt. Ida Neighborhood Watch operates in a similar fashion, with the goal of reducing crime in their community through cooperation with the BCSO and Cal Fire. Lois Miller, a spokeswoman for the Mt. Ida group, said such organizations have the cooperation of local law enforcement to thank for their success. This appreciation for mutual collaboration is shared by law enforcement.

“Both groups have value, and both groups have become good partners with the Sheriff’s Office,” said Butte County Sheriff Korey Honea. “They’re trying to make a difference in their respective communities and certainly helping us keep an eye out for what’s going on.”

The BCSO employs a crime prevention coordinator, who acts as a liaison with neighborhood watch groups and provides guidance to persons wishing to start or join a watch group within their community. As stated on the Butte County website, “Neighborhoods working together with law enforcement are some of the best crime-fighting teams around,” an appraisal Honea echoed about the Mt. Ida Neighborhood Watch and the Durham Patrol.

“I think they have had a positive impact,” he said. “Engagement by the community in a positive manner, one that works collaboratively with law enforcement, I think is always positive. My sense is that both groups have contributed to enhancing public safety in their respective areas.”