The uptick in prowlers began the first week of September 2017. A rash of car break-ins and thefts in the residential community of Palmer Lake left residents angry, frustrated and eager to find real solutions to protect the peaceful tranquility of the neighborhood they call home.
It’s not about vigilante justice; on the contrary, it is exactly vigilantism that these residents wish to avoid, they say.
The informal group has done its homework. One neighbor developed a “cheat sheet” for neighbors as a handy reference to keep near the telephone, as a reminder to ensure 911 calls are effective in unfolding situations. Residents have thoroughly mapped the subdivision, noting all lots and corresponding addresses of concern, including nearly a dozen abandoned or bank-owned properties that tend to attract squatters and drug crimes.
The group also maintains photographic records, video surveillance footage and lists of suspicious vehicles throughout the area; cars with expired tabs, out-of-state license plates or no plates at all. In some cases, the group has obtained the names of registered owners and known operators, and records the various locations where they park within the subdivision.
“We compile all this information and provide it to law enforcement; we endeavor to work with law enforcement,” one resident said. Like all of the community members interviewed for this article, this person asked to remain anonymous.
“I have vetted my actions to sheriff’s deputies to ensure I’m not violating anyone’s civil rights and have been told I am OK,” the resident said. “If at any point I’m in danger of going too far, they will let me know.”
Other details gathered from public records form the basis of a neighborhood database—a growing matrix filled with names, dates, addresses, arrest records and suspected criminal activity. Altogether, the matrix represents a picture of crime in Palmer Lake that indicates some coordination between theft and drug crimes.
Group members frequently report watching young adults wearing hoodies and backpacks at night and in the small hours of the morning, equipped with flashlights, either on foot or walking alongside a bicycle.
“One by one, we see young adults wearing backpacks going down a driveway or inside a house, often quickly coming out wearing a different backpack,” another resident said, “It’s hard not to assume stolen property is going in and drugs are coming back out.”
“They are all over social media,” a third resident said. “They know they are being watched. They know their pictures have been taken. They make a concerted effort to avoid having their faces seen. That’s why they wear these hoodies pulled over their heads.”
The informal neighborhood watch group uses Facebook to communicate with each other as well, something that has come to the attention of Pierce County Councilman Derek Young.
“We’re frankly concerned about the use of Facebook, as some of the stuff we see openly posted crosses the line,” he said. “Facebook used as means to harass private citizens is a real problem. Reporting crime on Facebook doesn’t help. Nothing shows up as a crime if it isn’t reported to the sheriff’s office.”
Young said that some crime is being fueled by the opioid epidemic. Residents have phoned 911 numerous times after finding residue-laden bags and hypodermic needles used for injecting heroin and other substances.
“The biggest problem we are facing here is a lack of police officers,” a fourth resident said. To these neighbors, sheriff’s deputies seem stretched so thin they don’t have time to investigate.
“With cuts in shared revenue with the state, we have law enforcement staffing issues county-wide,” Young said, adding that problems such as this aren’t new to Palmer Lake or anywhere in Pierce county. He said approximately 80 percent of the county budget already goes to criminal justice. He also said the recently passed budget allocates funds for additional staffing and makes some administrative changes within the Pierce County Sheriff’s Office.
“These people are brazen; my fear is that somebody is going to get hurt,” said a fifth resident. “I fear some residents out here are so angry and so fed up that somebody is going to catch a person going through a car, a truck or a shed and somebody is going to get hurt.”
Another resident said, “That’s exactly what we don’t want. We don’t want vigilante justice, but I am afraid it’s going to happen; it’s going to come to a head.”