By C. Jayden Smith
A concerned community looking for answers to reverse the negative direction of their neighborhood met Thursday night, Aug. 25, at St. Clement’s By-The-Sea Episcopal Church to learn from local law enforcement and voice ideas for solutions.
The Neighborhood Watch meeting consisted of a presentation on Max Berg Plaza Park from Capt. Tony Benfield, chief of San Clemente Police Services, a Q&A session, and a verbal agreement from those in the audience to begin the process of forming an official Neighborhood Watch group.
Thursday night’s meeting comes after a shooting occurred at the park in late July, resulting in one man sustaining a minor head injury. According to the Orange County Sheriff’s Department, about two to four people were at the park when multiple shots were fired, grazing the top of the victim’s head.
During the presentation, Benfield went over some of the talking points addressed at an Aug. 19 City Council meeting, highlighting measures that both the city and OCSD are undertaking to keep Max Berg Park safe.
Along with the city installing a security camera at the park and trimming down hedges for better visibility, the police are actively investigating recent criminal cases, increasing patrol checks and contacts, and seeking to partner with the community for awareness and reporting.
“I said during the City Council meeting that we rely on our partnership with the community; you guys are a force multiplier for us,” Benfield said. “We cannot be everywhere at the same time, so we really do appreciate your partnership in keeping this part of San Clemente safe.”
He encouraged residents to be active and decisive in calling OCSD whenever they suspect a crime is about to occur, is occurring, or has occurred, and in reporting suspicious activity immediately.
The presentation also listed locking doors and windows, securing keys, installing residential alarms and security cameras, participating in a Neighborhood Watch program, and having an emergency plan ready in each household as recommended steps for residents.
After receiving a question about why the city’s Public Safety Committee hasn’t been active in establishing Neighborhood Watch groups around San Clemente, Benfield attributed the inactivity to the committee’s personnel changes over the past two years and the difficulty of placing such a responsibility on a volunteer group.
The intent behind creating Neighborhood Watches, Benfield said, was to have an online citywide system of multiple units in which residents within specific communities could nominate block captains to periodically meet, trade information, and take what they learned back to their own neighborhoods.
With Police Services only serving in an advisory role and city staff also being stretched thin, the formation process of the potential program would be strenuous, Benfield said.
“I think it’s a really good model, especially with the way nowadays everything has turned to applications and online forms,” he said. “People want their information now; they want to be able to look and see what type of crime is occurring in their neighborhood.”
Building a website would also require IT expertise, of which previous members of the Public Safety Committee were receiving from the community before the pandemic interrupted Neighborhood Watch efforts, according to Benfield.
He added that community participation such as the turnout for Thursday’s meeting would similarly take the new enterprise forward.
Networking, creating email threads, holding meetings, and sharing information online could all be a part of the process of protecting the neighborhood.
Regarding the gang activity that has reportedly picked up recently, Benfield said that it corresponds with the trend of gang activity occurring more often in the summer months before calming down in the fall.
Deputy Sheriff Ryan McCormick added that activity almost always tapers off after the Labor Day weekend, as most of the actors in violent incidents are juveniles who start their school year soon afterward.
“San Clemente is the quietest city in South County,” McCormick said. “Lake Forest, Laguna Hills, and (San Juan Capistrano) have significantly higher amounts of violence occurring at this time.”
Responding to a resident who was concerned about the number of teenage children involved in gangs, McCormick said the presence of school resource officers on campuses and the Gang Reduction, Intervention and Prevention (GRIP) Program represented efforts to guide at-risk children away from paths their older siblings may have already taken.
Multiple residents voiced their growing concerns about the direction of the neighborhood, citing incidents of people riding illegal dirt bikes on the streets, lighting fireworks illegally, and leaving trash throughout the park and in other places.
“We live in a garbage can,” said Jayson Heydt, 50, who said his family that lives nearby was growing frustrated. He added, “I think that’s why we’re all here. We need to group together as a community and say, ‘No, that’s not okay.’”
Heydt said it was on the community to put their foot down and be vocal, even in the face of potential retaliation.
Several people echoed his sentiment, calling on residents to firmly tell others what actions are not allowed and to call police when they see or suspect illegal activity so that deputies can issue citations.
Benfield cautioned the audience that restrictions will always interfere with deputies investigating and taking further action on certain incidents. For example, he said, active calls for service in a different area take deputies away from their assigned patrol zone, and reasonable suspicion is needed to contact a person.
However, he was supportive of the calls for community action.
At the end of the meeting, there was enough support from the audience for Heydt to volunteer as a representative of the neighborhood to interact with the Public Safety Committee in the process of forming a Neighborhood Watch group.
Heydt attended the meeting with his wife, Neelia, 41, who found out about the meeting through the Nextdoor app. Neelia felt it was important to learn how their family could contribute to the community’s safety and make the neighborhood more positive.
“This is great, because I’m completely ignorant about Neighborhood Watch,” she said. “I’ve never done it, but I think it’s amazing if we can get this together.”
Clare Hendrick, who has lived in San Clemente since 1996, goes to the park every day with her dog. She said she’s seen the park get “abused” without any common courtesy paid to it. She suggested during the meeting that putting up more signs to instruct people how to treat the area would be helpful.
“It’s a neighborhood park that I don’t think gets the respect of the neighbors,” Hendrick said. “So, if it is a neighborhood park, we are responsible for leaving it as we found it and not abusing it.”
She added that she was supportive of the idea of forming a Neighborhood Watch as long as the program is handled appropriately and people recognize the lack of true authority they hold.
C. Jayden Smith
C. Jayden Smith graduated from Dana Hills High in 2018 before pursuing a Bachelor’s degree in digital and broadcast journalism from the University of North Texas. After graduating in December 2020, he reported for the Salina Journal in Salina, Kansas. Jayden loves college football and bothering his black lab named Shadow.