See also Vigilance: A Chronology
Don’t mess with Rhoda Antolino. Every Tuesday from 10:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., Antolino serves as radio dispatch coordinator for Lower Merion Township’s community watch. While her fellow watch members patrol neighborhoods, Antolino mans a desk inside police headquarters and forwards any reports of suspicious activity to the uniformed officers who surround her.
Never mind that Antolino is 80 years old and about five feet tall on a good day. “She’s efficient, committed to community watch, and dead serious about helping law enforcement protect residents,” says Joe Haungs of the Lower Merion Township Police Department’s crime prevention unit.
Antolino’s community-watch partners include Lower Merion residents John Maley, Glenn Louderback and Leon Goldberg. All retirees and U.S. Army veterans, they comprise the day squad; others patrol on Wednesday and Saturday evenings. They’re among the hundreds of groups in the National Association of Town Watch, founded by Matt Peskin and headquartered in Wynnewood.
In addition to serving as executive director of NATW and president of Lower Merion’s community watch, Peskin is the founder of National Night Out, which is celebrating its 30th anniversary on Aug. 6 with outdoor festivals in 15,704 communities across 50 states and Canada. Held annually the first Tuesday in August, National Night Out is a free community carnival that features entertainment, food, and awareness education from police and fire departments.
Of course, it also serves as a recruitment event for town watches. “Hopefully, we inspire people to get involved in protecting their communities,” says Peskin. “Even if they don’t volunteer for their town watch, National Night Out gives neighbors a way to meet and interact. There’s no saying that you have to become best friends, but it is nice to say, ‘This is our town, our development, our street, whatever—and we take pride and responsibility for it and each other.’ There is value in being a good neighbor.”
A recent example is Charles Ramsey, the Cleveland man who responded to shouts for help and rescued Amanda Berry from the house where she’d been held captive with Michelle Knight and Gina DeJesus. When DeJesus’ father, Felix, spoke to the media, he wore a National Night Out T-shirt. “Too many kids these days come up missing,” he said. “We always ask this question, ‘How come I didn’t see what happened to that kid?’ Why? Because we chose not to.”
Peskin’s understanding is that DeJesus got involved with Cleveland’s town watch and National Night Out after his daughter’s abduction. “Maybe this will inspire other people to get involved in their town watches,” he says. “Maybe they will save a child from harm.”
It was Peskin’s hope that National Night Out would spread far and wide when he conceived the event in 1984. He’d been involved in Lower Merion’s community watch since 1978, when he volunteered to patrol and write its newsletter. He learned about community crime prevention and its administrative aspects—like bylaws, insurance, fundraising and recruitment. He recognized a need for a national umbrella organization to provide professional administrative support for town watches, a concept that dates back to Colonial times. In 1981, he created the National Association of Town Watch to do just that.
The overwhelmingly positive response from town watches across the country inspired National Night Out in 1984. With the motto “Lights On Means Lights Out for Crime,” Peskin invited communities to turn on their porch lights and sit outside with neighbors for an hour once every summer. More than 2.5 million Americans from 400 communities in 23 states participated, becoming literal beacons in the dark. The response didn’t surprise Peskin. “I think people were—and still are—tired of letting the bad guys win,” he says. “But guess what? There are more good guys than bad guys. If we form a unified front, the bad guys won’t win.”
In 1986, Peskin morphed the concept into its current incarnation as a community festival. As more towns participated, so did the federal government. Presidents Reagan, H.W. Bush and Clinton backed National Night Out with letters of commendation, appearances at events, and funding for community crime prevention programs at police departments. While the recession forced reductions in that money, Peskin works to replace it with sponsorships from Target and other national corporations.
But the real engines are the neighbors who volunteer. To become official members, residents go through a background check, then attend a one-hour training session with their local police department. Procedures differ by township, but generally participants are educated about types of suspicious behavior, identifying suspects, police radio protocols, and how to maintain their own safety. Following training, town watchers sign up for three-hour shifts tailored to their schedules. In Lower Merion, they patrol in their own cars. “The two most important rules are to never leave your vehicle to purse a suspect and never carry a firearm,” Haungs says.
Haungs has been Lower Merion Police Department’s community watch liaison for 14 years, and he speaks with admiration of the more than 1,200 volunteers. One witnessed an armed robbery in progress and provided a description that led to the arrest of a band of drug-selling thieves. A group of Orthodox Jews patrol their community during the week while their non-Sabbath-observing neighbors do the same on Fridays and Saturdays.
Then there’s Antolino. She may appear to have little in common with DeJesus, but Antolino carries similar scars: Her sister was brutally raped at gunpoint. Not only did Antolino’s sister identify her rapist, but she also testified against him to make sure the repeat offender received a long prison sentence.
“The bad guys are always out there and always watching for opportunities,” says Antolino. “So us good guys have to watch out for them—and for each other.”
1984: First National Night Out.
1988: Vice President George H.W. Bush attends NNO’s fifth anniversary in Philadelphia.
1994: President Bill Clinton honors NNO at the White House.
2008: NNO’s 25th anniversary is held at Washington, D.C.’s National Mall.
2013: NNO’s 30th anniversary is celebrated in more than 15,000 communities.