BURLINGTON — When residents living near Pomeroy Park in the Old North End first learned about the late-night assault last month on one of their neighbors, they probably didn’t get the news from the daily newspaper. More likely, they read about it on the Front Porch Forum. This online social-networking site has become a useful tool for Chittenden County residents to alert one another about what’s happening in their neighborhoods, from garage sales to lost cats to car burglaries. As a result, police and other government officials are now using the site to respond better to problems in their area.
On Saturday, June 16, a woman living on Booth Street was awakened at about 3 a.m. by four young men playing basketball and “swearing loudly” in the park near her house. The woman (who requested not to be identified) approached the youths and asked if they knew the park was closed. To her surprise, they said they did and agreed to leave. But after the woman turned her back on the men — “which I realize now was a mistake,” she says — a tall, white male, about 22 years old, shoved her to the ground and told her, “Don’t ever do that to me again.” The woman suffered a split lip, a damaged tooth and multiple cuts and bruises.
The victim, who has lived in the neighborhood for 11 years, says she’s had to ask other late-night rowdies to leave the park “at least 30 times” in the past. This was the first time she was assaulted as a result. The victim didn’t go to the hospital for her injuries, though she did file a police report.
This incident, like many relatively minor crimes that occur each day in Burlington, might have gone unnoticed and unaddressed were it not for the victim’s neighbor, Samuel Press. He asked her permission to post an account of the incident on their neighborhood’s Front Porch Forum. This ultra-local email newsletter was launched last fall to help citizens build community and to encourage more neighbor-to-neighbor dialogues.
Press’ posting sparked a flurry of email responses from other residents of the Old North End, some of whom recounted similar experiences with unruly and foul-mouthed park users. Others expressed dismay at the Parks & Recreation department and the police department’s unwillingness and/or inability to address their concerns, which appear to have existed for years.
The online back-and-forth eventually prompted official replies from Parks & Recreation Director Wayne Gross and Burlington Police Lieutenant Jennifer Morrison. Both sought to assuage neighbors’ grievances, and outlined actions they’ve taken to address the issues.
Gross wrote that he asked the Burlington Electric Department to fix the street lamp that was bleeding light onto the court, enabling late-night play to occur. Likewise, Morrison informed residents that the police have stepped up nighttime patrols of the area, and asked residents to get good descriptions of anyone else engaged in suspicious activities.
Morrison, who monitors “eight or so” FPFs in her patrol district, emphasizes that “no technology can replace the face-to-face interaction of humans.” She strongly encourages citizens to call the police to report crimes when they happen, rather than just posting them online. That said, Morrison thinks the FPF is another tool to help police keep their fingers “on the pulse of each neighborhood.”
Apparently, other public officials feel the same way. Michael Wood-Lewis, founder and online mediator of FPF, says there are now 130 neighborhood forums throughout Chittenden County, totaling about 5200 households. Any resident can join the forum where he or she lives. Local public officials are also granted access to the neighborhoods within their jurisdiction. Since FPF’s countywide launch last year, about 150 public officials have signed up, including city councilors, school board members, select board members and local police. According to Wood-Lewis, about half the city’s wards now have a police lieutenant who monitors the sites to stay informed about local occurrences.
He concedes that he was initially hesitant about giving police and other public officials access to the forums, fearing that it might change the nature of the dialogue. His concern quickly proved unfounded.
“Rather than worrying that Big Brother is looking over our shoulder,” Wood-Lewis says, “we’d much rather know that the police lieutenant hears about every little car break-in, so we get more police presence when we need it.”
As for the victim of last month’s assault, she admits she wasn’t a member of FPF and was surprised by how much dialogue her incident fomented. She’s glad it prompted official attention to a problem that she feels was long unaddressed. “Sometimes it takes someone getting hurt before someone starts listening,” she says. “But if it did [draw notice], my split lip was worth it.”