It’s a scenario everyone hopes never happens to them.
One minute you’re living in a nice, peaceful area with neighbors that don’t cause trouble. Next thing you know, new people move in and that home down the block suddenly goes by the name ‘drug house’ or ‘crack shack.’
Peace is a thing of the past, replaced by a mixture of fear, anger and helplessness.
Steve Priebe felt these things in 2010 when it happened on Cornwall Crescent, a normally quiet block just off Broadway Avenue in Chilliwack.
A new guy moved in down the street and nefarious activity commenced, with people coming and going 24/7, conducting ‘business’ right in front of Steve’s house.
“The people right next door to him couldn’t even be outside because he’d have his radio blaring loud, or he’d take his truck and do a burn-out right in front of the house,” Priebe said. “He was running his quad down the street, racing to meet cars at one, two, three in the morning. He had this attitude where, ‘This is my block and I’m going to do what I want.’”
For Steve and his neighbors, this guy created a waking nightmare.
“We felt violated. We were victims of this one idiot,” Priebe said. “We started looking at it saying, ‘We’ve got to get together here. We can’t let this guy ruin all our lives. Let’s push him out!’ But we didn’t know what to do.”
Some try to tackle the problem themselves. Others bury their heads in the sand, hoping it will go away.
Residents of Cornwall Crescent turned to Block Watch.
“The only way to stop him was to rally together,” said Priebe, whose son was in Grade 6 then and was scared to walk down the street. “We started taking photos, jotting down license plate numbers and documenting everything. I had an older trailer back then, and I sat in there quite a bit with a camera and note pad.”
“We were calling the police constantly, they increased their presence and of course he didn’t like that. He didn’t want that attention.”
Block Watch is a program based on organization, cooperation and communication between neighbors and police.
It provides a banner to rally behind and relies on the principle of strength in numbers.
“Even an old Hungarian lady across the street, who’s still there, was like, ‘He’s not going to ruin my life! I’ll ruin his first,’” Priebe chuckled. “She just didn’t like him. Said he was ‘bad news.’ She lived right across the street from him, could see everything out of her window. She filled me in on everything that was going on.”
Making themselves visible invited blowback, and Priebe said the man was a retaliator.
“He threatened me. He said, ‘You think you’re safe at night? Not with me around.’ Most nights I was up checking on noises at two or three in the morning,” Priebe noted. “If he thought he could pick at you as a lame duck he would. He always confronted a guy who lived on the corner. ‘Who do you think you are, blankety blank blank? You little blankety blank blank!’”
Priebe and his neighbors never wavered, never backed down.
“We were determined to show him we were around and watching, so as soon as he’d come down here, I’d take my dog out for a walk,” Priebe said. “Other people started doing that, congregating outside. He knew we were watching.”
“It wasn’t a quiet corner for him anymore and he started going elsewhere.”
Cornwall Crescent was lucky in a way.
In the notorious case of Rotary Street, it took four years and a police raid to finally solve the problem.
But the owners of this house lived in Cloverdale and actually cared. Blissfully unaware until contacted by the City of Chilliwack, they moved quickly to evict the man. It took another three months, but he was forced out.
“It was relief and celebration and a feeling of success,” Priebe said with a smile. “Taking back our street is what we did, and Block Watch played a big role.”
“The basis of the program is to open up lines of communication, encourage vigilance and actually get things reported to police,” said Jen Dueck, Chilliwack’s Block Watch coordinator. “In a two hour training session, Block Watch captains and co-captains are trained on why to report, what to report and how to report. Neighbors know their neighbors best and see patterns because they’re there every day. That’s their neighborhood and I encourage them to take ownership of it.”
From Dueck’s side, reporting to police is the key aspect of Block Watch.
When reporting is done properly, an area becomes a ‘hot spot’ for RCMP, drawing police presence.
“We find a lot of people, especially seniors, don’t report things because they know they’re probably not going to get stolen property back or they just don’t want to have that interaction with police,” Dueck said. “What I try to get them to understand is if you don’t report we don’t know there’s a problem.”
“When I know Joe and Anne like to go away camping every weekend, and all of a sudden I see a cube van in their driveway and a lot of traffic going in and out, that’s unusual and I would call that in. It might be nothing, or their house might be empty when they get back.”
In particular Dueck encourages Block Watchers to record vehicle and driver descriptions of suspicious people.
She also doesn’t believe there’s such a thing as reporting too much.
“It’s their (RCMP’s) job. It’s why they’re there, but I tell my Block Watchers they kind of have to become a pain in the police’s butt,” Dueck said. “You really do. You have to keep calling in because eventually they’re going to say, ‘Wow. We got 80 calls about this residence. We need to do something about that.’ It’s your neighborhood and you’re taking ownership of it, and if that means being a pain in the butt to police, that’s what you do.”
“It’s usually not for a long time either, because once you really start pounding on the unsavory people, they don’t like that and they move on.”
Dueck currently oversees 38 Block Watch chapters in Chilliwack, most of which came online after problems surfaced.
“When there’s a house that suddenly starts standing out, I tend to get people knocking on my door,” Dueck confirmed. “It does tend to be more, ‘when it occurs in your hood,’ but there are areas starting up right now that don’t want to fall into that ‘deal with it when it happens’ category. There are a few who want to be proactive.”
“It’s been proven that Block Watch signs alone are 65 per cent effective in reducing crime in an area,” she added. “When someone comes into a neighborhood and sees those signs, they move on.”
Priebe has become one of the program’s biggest boosters and said people shouldn’t wait for things to go south before making the leap.
“It was easy to get involved, the training was excellent and we were given a plan and the tools we needed to shut down unwanted activity,” he said. “It was our neighborhood and we asked ourselves why we were we allowing this? We decided it wasn’t going to happen and we stood up with Block Watch to stop it.”
Get Block Watch info from Dueck by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.