As Jeff Simonsen and his white husky Zeus walk through their Elk Grove neighborhood, Simonsen greets neighbors, checks the back of mailboxes for pry marks and looks for unfamiliar cars.
They are part of the city’s new Paws on Patrol program, where dog owners stay on high alert as they complete their usual walking routes in their neighborhoods. Officers in the crime prevention unit of Elk Grove’s Police Department came up with the idea to augment the 270 neighborhood watch groups already set up around the city.
“We have a tremendous amount of buy-in from the community that’s led us to the arrest and capture of hundreds of criminals,” said Officer Kristopher Packwood.
The Paws on Patrol program was launched by Packwood and Officer Andrew Bornhoeft in February. As dog owners themselves, they noticed that at any given time there was someone out walking a dog in their neighborhoods. They realized if they could get people off their phones and paying attention to their surroundings, those dog-walkers could be the “eyes, ears and paws of the department.”
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Both masters of bad dog puns, they want criminals to know that in Elk Grove, they’re “barking up the wrong tree.”
“The primary tenet of neighborhood watch is to remove the opportunity for a criminal to commit a crime,” Packwood said. “To actually prevent a crime from even occurring.”
During their training sessions, the two officers tell residents that they know their neighborhoods better than a beat cop ever could. All Packwood and Bornhoeft are asking people to do is to pay attention to the people and vehicles around them. They stress that a dog walker or a neighborhood watcher should never put themselves in an uncomfortable situation.
If something seems suspicious, residents should be call the department, Packwood said. Unfamiliar people aren’t inherently suspicious, he said. Actions are, such as looking in car or house windows, lurking in the bushes or following delivery trucks.
Between the two meetings they’ve held for residents interested in Paws on Patrol, he said they’ve brought in between 50 and 70 people who weren’t previously involved with neighborhood watch.
“It’s better than just saying neighborhood watch,” Jones said. “That sounds like a lot of work. Whereas if I’m just hooking my dog up or climbing on my bike every day and I have my cellphone with me – it’s just me. I’m working independently. It’s less work for people.”
In a precursor to Paws on Patrol, one Elk Grove resident last year helped police bust a marijuana grow house based on her observations while walking three dogs each day. The dog walker notified Jill Jones, a neighborhood watch captain in their 22-home cul-de-sac, after repeatedly noticing a funky smell around the property and seeing visitors hanging out at odd times.
“About six months later, we have the SWAT team on our cul-de-sac, busting,” Jones said. “And that house was connected to at least two other operations. So it was a ring. And we broke it.”
On his Thursday morning walk, Simonsen, 52, took a photo of a white Pontiac sitting jacked up in the street, missing a license plate. Shaking his head, he took some photos of the apparently abandoned car to send to the department.
“You get that little instinct that tells you that there may be something going on,” Simonsen said. “It’s based on instinct and knowing your neighborhood and getting involved in your community.”