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In Savin Hill, neighborhood watch goes digital

Posted by Cara Bayles  December 29, 2010 04:07 PM

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In early December, Peter McNamara noticed the prostitutes had moved to Savin Hill Avenue.

"The police cracked down on prostitution on Dorchester Ave, and I think the girls are just looking for a different place to hang out," he said. "But they're getting a little bold right now. They're just walking up to people and saying, 'Hey, you wanna come home with me?' "

So McNamara sent an e-mail about the issue to 85 of his neighbors, a response that is hardly unusual for him. As the founder of Savin Hill Alert, an electronic neighborhood watch group that serves the Dorchester enclave, McNamara sends out several such e-mails every week, ranging in topics from break-ins to graffiti and traffic concerns.

Around 1 a.m. on Christmas Day, McNamara e-mailed the group to let them know that two men had set off the alarms on both the cars in his driveway.

"The police where here in seconds and caught them by the bridge," he wrote. "My Christmas present was I just got to ID them."

The electronic crime watch group is a trend that's still somewhat nascent, according to Robin Young, a coordinator for the National Crime Watch Council. Young said she's heard of using technology to organize meetings and have conference calls.

"This is something we haven't seen before. Being entirely on-line is something new and innovative in community crime watches," she said.

Similar Yahoo groups exist for Dunwoody, Ga., and the Takoma Park neighborhood of Washington, D.C. McNamara, the group's founder and comment moderator, said that he got the idea from a friend who belonged to a similar e-mail list in Miami.

"People see something and they just send a message, and it gets sent around. … The problem with crime watch meetings is that people just don't want to meet every month, and a lot of this information is time-sensitive when you send it out," he said.

Neighbors often reply to the group, congratulating one another on crime-stopping accomplishments and confirming trends. The group also has a "phone tree," so members know when to call in and report a problem to police, since the volume of calls often spurs a reaction.

The group formed after an incident in July, when about 100 teenagers came into Savin Hill Park, after spending the day at Carson Beach.

"They were blocking traffic, sitting in the street. … It was pretty bad, they were threatening neighbors and things like that," McNamara said.

Soon after the incident, local politicians and law enforcement officials held a meeting at the Dorchester Yacht Club, which McNamara said was crammed with hundreds of people. A host of other safety issues came up.

After the meeting, a letter signed by Senator Jack Hart, Representative Marty Walsh, Representative Brian Wallace, Councilor Maureen Feeney, and the mayor's liaisons to South Boston and Dorchester promised to implement "a 'No Tolerance' policy when dealing with illegal activities of Dorchester and South Boston, from Castle Island to Ventura Park, and everywhere in between." Savin Hill residents decided to do the same.

Now, the Savin Hill Alert group, which focuses primarily on the peninsula across the expressway, is expanding to issues beyond crime and safety. They're currently applying for nonprofit status, which would open the doors for grants and funding. In the spring, they plan to run a clinic to get residents' car windows etched with serial numbers. Members have also helped organize Christmas caroling, and are beginning to email about non-crime related issues, like home weatherization programs and urban gardening classes.

This approaches civic association status, and has made some uncomfortable, since the neighborhood already has the Columbia Savin Hill Civic Association. Rep. Marty Walsh told the Dorchester Reporter that he worried the group would rival Columbia Savin Hill, and warned "Splitting a community into competing groups doesn’t help."

McNamara dismisses that charge, and says that resemblance to a civic association came about organically.

"Basically, our crime watch has turned into a very solid little community," he said.

E-mail Cara Bayles at

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