It’s not about vigilante justice or fear but taking back the community, one person at a time.
That was the message delivered by moderators of the Columbus Facebook Watch Group during the Kiwanis Club meeting at the Columbus Country Club Wednesday afternoon.
David Perry and Mac Martin are just two of the 4,341 members the group has amassed since its inception a little more than a month ago. In that time, the social-media crime fighters have spearheaded a swift — and some lawmakers say highly effective — campaign against what they see as an influx of criminal activity in the area.
It began with a phone call late one Sunday night close to Christmas. Lynn Sanders Nordquist was talking with Perry on the phone when she heard the blare of police sirens screaming through her neighborhood. Nordquist was alone, and she was afraid.
Later, she learned the cause for the sirens — a home near hers had been burglarized, and police were chasing a suspect. The knowledge didn’t quell her worries, so she decided to do something about her fear. She made a Facebook page where members could post messages about suspicious activity in their neighborhoods, learn safety tips, organize neighborhood watch groups and take control of the community out of the hands of criminals and place it back in the hands of the people.
Within the first week, the page had amassed 1,000 members. As word spread, the group grew, click by click, adding an average of 1,000 members a week.
The group is closed to protect the page from spammers and would-be criminals, Martin said, but interested citizens can receive an invitation from Facebook friends who are already members. Moderators examine each request before adding newcomers. They also attempt to keep the page informative and positive by managing posts that don’t fit the group’s goals. Moderators can remove messages and block members.
According to its mission statement, the goals of the group include informing local residents about crime, promoting neighborhood awareness, restoring honor and integrity to the city and county, supporting local law enforcement and elected officials and holding them accountable, offering assistance as the “eyes and ears” to help law enforcement and offering encouragement and recognition to those entities.
Many of the posts share suspicious sightings in neighborhoods or bits of information heard on police scanners. Others request information about alarm systems, crime deterrents, upcoming crime-prevention meetings and schedules for personal protection classes.
Martin said because of the group, the Lowndes County Sheriff’s Office is now offering certified National Rifle Association gun-safety classes on Tuesday and Thursday nights. Classroom instruction and range time are included. The first classes were geared toward women, but upcoming classes will be held for couples. For those who aren’t comfortable owning or using a gun, self-defense classes will also be offered.
For some members of the Facebook group, the posts have been an eye-opening experience. Martin told Rotarians there are several gangs operating in Lowndes County. In the Facebook group’s photos section, a number of images depict identifying symbols and graffiti for gangs.
If enough citizens make it their mission to become “snoopy people,” then gangs and criminals will get the message that they’re not welcome and won’t be tolerated in Columbus and Lowndes County, he said.
“This community has turned a blind eye long enough,” Martin said. “Be aware of what’s going on. The citizens are the first line of defense. We don’t wear badges, and we don’t carry guns, but we can look out the window at night … or pay attention to the neighborhood.”
It’s a start, Martin said, and he expects the group’s efforts to grow even stronger as new members join.
At several public meetings, the sheriff’s department has credited the group with contributing valuable information leading to arrests.
“Sheriff Mike Arledge told Lynn (Nordquist) he knows for a fact the group is working,” Martin said. “I believe it’s working.”
Carmen K. Sisson is the former news editor at The Dispatch.
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