We finally seem to be getting the message that crime isn’t just a police problem – it’s our problem, too. And we seem to be getting another message: Escaping to the suburbs won’t end our crime problem. Just ask the people in Richardson. Or Plano. Or Garland. Or…

Simply put, no city or neighborhood is immune from crime, so moving away won’t keep us safe. And cowering behind electronically protected walls, with loaded weapons across our laps, doesn’t exactly conjure visions of the ‘good old days’ of Lassie, Andy Griffith and the Waltons.

Unless we band together and take action as neighborhoods, our crime problem won’t go away.

Some Lake Highlands residents are shaking off the apathy that only serves to encourage criminals. They are taking the lead, asserting themselves through their Neighborhood Crime Watch.

Here are the stories of neighbors who are making a difference.

Crime Watch almost always begins with one neighborhood resident who has been hit too many times by the crooks. Eventually, someone will shake off the notion that burglaries and vandalism and even assaults are part of City life and look for a way to fight back.

In Lake Highlands North, Martha Swayze was that person. After burglars and vandals struck her house three times in two years, Swayze decided last summer that she could no longer tolerate the kind of criminal activity that had begun to threaten the quality of life in her once-serene neighborhood.

“We had made several efforts at forming a Crime Watch over the years, but each time, interest had fallen off,” says Swayze, who moved into the neighborhood located across Church Road from Lake Highlands High School in 1972.

“We had been unable to get any leadership.”

Susan Tomlinson, a Crime Watch block captain, says: “People had talked about Crime Watch, but Martha was the one person interested enough to do the work.”

Apparently, Lake Highlands North was just waiting for someone to step forward.

Swayze conferred with Sr. Corporal Margaret Chandler, who coordinates residential Crime Watch out of the Dallas Police Dept.’s Northeast Substation on Northwest Highway. Following Chandler’s instructions, Swayze mailed fliers to the neighborhood’s 500 homes. More than 300 of the families responded.

“Once we found interest in the neighborhood, we took it from there,” says Tomlinson. She and the other block captains – 25 in all – tackle crime and crime prevention issues through regular meetings. Tomlinson also brought her neighbors together last August for a block party.

The Lake Highlands North Crime Watch meets about every two months at Northlake Elementary School.

Burglaries have dropped sharply, Swayze says, although random incidents of vandalism continue, and bicycles and yard equipment left unwatched are still at risk.

“Any garage door left open is an invitation to criminals,” Swayze says.

But residents look out for each other now and take extra steps to help police, such as posting their addresses on alley entrances to their homes.

“One of the benefits of Crime Watch is that people have gotten out of their homes,” Tomlinson says.

“Some of my neighbors have lived here a long time, some are new. We all have rear entrances and a lot of us have yard men, so people didn’t know each other.”

Through Crime Watch, Tomlinson says, “people have made an effort to meet. We know each other now, and we have more of an idea of who belongs here. We keep an eye out for each other, and we watch out for our neighbors.”

Homeowners also attribute much of their success in controlling crime to patrols by off-duty Dallas police. Each family contributes $120 a month to help pay for two officers (at $25 per hour each, with an additional fee for use of the patrol car) to patrol eight to 10 hours a week.

The patroling officer carries a cellular phone that may be used to monitor the neighborhood’s Crime Watch voice mailbox. Homeowners may also call the officer directly.

Voice mail, an increasingly popular tool with Crime Watch groups, allows a monitor to leave crime alert messages for residents and callers to report suspicious activity (police recommend that people first call 911).

Police also say they will soon be able to deliver crime alert messages to Crime Watch voice mailboxes around the City.

Crime Watch has helped Lake Highlands North residents regain the neighborhood feeling many once enjoyed, residents says.

“There’s much more of a community spirit now,” Swayze says. “Residents have developed a rapport” and a desire “to watch out for each other and know who they live by and whose cars are driving up and down the alley and the street.”

Tomlinson says: “You’re never going to be able to have a policeman or anyone else watching out 24 hours a day. I think the only way we’re going to be able to keep our neighborhood safe is if people continue to stay alert and watch out for each other.”