SAN JUAN COUNTY — Citizens concerned about crime in their neighborhoods don't have to sit and wait for law enforcement to intervene. They can put criminals on notice by starting a neighborhood watch.

This is a message from the San Juan County Sheriff's Office, which is hoping more neighborhoods will choose to partner with them to fight criminal activity.

There are currently about twenty neighborhood watches throughout the county, but the sheriff's office is hoping to greatly increase this number.

"Neighborhood watches bring everyone in a neighborhood together," said Deputy Connie Johnston. "It's important for us to hear concerns whether it's speeding in the neighborhood or criminal activity directly from residents, and it gives us a chance to form a partnership."

Johnston is part of the office's "Special Enforcement Team," which focuses directly on neighborhood issues such as suspected drug houses or gang activity. She said her office wants to start focusing on areas that traditionally have not had neighborhood watches.

"These areas are particularly subject to criminal and gang activity, and what I've seen is that criminals can take over an area very quickly if they think someone isn't paying attention," she said. "It's really sad when people start staying inside their houses, ignoring crime in their neighborhood, and it's especially sad when older people don't feel safe in their neighborhood."

Johnston said many people stay silent about crime because they are under the misconception that criminals will retaliate if it is known they are being watched.

"We don't really see retaliation, and I think that's something people may have gotten from T.V. shows," she said. "Criminals know about the additional charges they'll face for retaliating, and they generally don't do it."

What criminals do depend on, Johnston said, is people not getting involved and looking the other way.

"One thing we do know is that criminals do not like to think they're being watched. There are so many benefits that come from working together and looking out for each other instead of staying shut up inside the house."

The positive effects of neighborhood watches have been documented, and Johnston said she has seen dramatic results.

She described a neighborhood that was having trouble with residential and auto burglaries, as well as criminal damage to property. Two months after the area initiated a neighborhood watch and the criminals realized their activities would no longer be ignored, the crime rate in the area plummeted to zero.

After a neighborhood watch has been initiated, the residents are "in charge" of the watch, but the sheriff's office assists by providing neighborhood watch signs throughout the area, and helps organize and facilitate the meetings.

Neighborhoods decide where and how often to meet, but the sheriff's office can help host block parties, providing hamburgers and hotdogs for cookouts, which allow residents to meet with each other and deputies.

"We have a representative from the (sheriff's office) attend every neighborhood watch meeting, and we provide training sessions on drug recognition, ways to keep your home secure, and whatever people tell us they want to learn about," said Sergeant Al Jamison, who supervises the Special Enforcement Team. "We also help by connecting residents with animal control, other law enforcement agencies, and city councilors or commissioners; whatever it takes to help them resolve their own problems."

Johnston added that it's amazing what can be done when neighbors come together and work as a team.

"It's so powerful what can be done when the community comes together."

To find out about starting a neighborhood watch in your area, contact Connie Johnston at 505-334-6107, or e-mail johnstonc@sjcounty.net. Information can also be found on the San Juan County Sheriff's Office website, www.sjcso.com.