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Neighbors looking out for neighbors: Public safety concerns spark community initiatives to fight crimes on Guam



 By Frank Whitman

 

As Guam sees itself besieged by an increasing crime rate, concerned law-abiding citizen groups are taking steps to spread awareness of, and implement, community crime prevention measures. These groups include Neighborhood Watch groups and the Guam Chamber of Commerce, which has approached the Mayors’ Council of Guam to collaborate in the fight for a safe community.


“I think the chamber wanted to take some community-based action together with the Mayors’ Council and small business groups in order to do some self-help on crime prevention,” said Ernie Galito, chair of the chamber’s board of directors. “We don’t want to wait for our members to be impacted.”


The chamber is making the anti-crime program a priority and is looking to partner with the private security company G4S, Galito said.


According to a release from the Office of the Governor, the Guam Police Department’s Uniform Crime Report indicates that while violent crime in Guam increased from 341 crimes reported in 2016 to 665 crimes in 2021, that is actually a decrease from the 823 violent crimes reported in 2018. The number of burglaries reported in 2021 is 1,227, a decrease from 1,324 reported the previous year. Crime statistics for the last two years were not available.


Chamber members also met with the Mayors’ Council. Most villages have active Neighborhood Watch programs and they welcomed the chamber’s proposed involvement.


“The crime rate on the island continues to rise,” said Jesse Alig, mayor of Piti and president of the Mayors’ Council. “A community partnership will strengthen our efforts already implemented in the villages with the Neighborhood Watch programs.”


Man smiling
Ernie Galito/Photo by Frank Whitman

The Guam Police Department has initiated a Business Watch program, according to Sgt. Paul Tapao, GPD’s community affairs officer. In 2023, police met with chamber officials who, in turn, arranged meetings with Guam’s petroleum retailers, which led to sessions with the companies’ store managers. Tapao noted that the companies operate retail outlets that are open 24 hours making them likely targets for robbers.


GPD also visited and advised several mom-and-pop stores as part of Business Watch.  “We shared best practices in safety and security,” Tapao said.


Best practices include easily implemented measures such as installing surveillance cameras, removing posters and other marketing materials from windows, and ensuring adequate lighting, so that police or others, perhaps passersby outside, can see any suspicious activity. He noted the value of maintaining a good relationship with the customer base so they might report out-of-the-ordinary activity.


Galito is hopeful that the chamber will be able to offer training from subject-matter experts on how not to become the victim, and if one is in a dangerous situation, how to behave.


“Physical safety is important,” he said. “So cooperate, but also be observant. See what the police may ask in a post-event interview: How many people were there? What was their gender? What was their race? What were they wearing? If people are taught, it will be more likely they will be able to recall.”


Paul Tapao/Photo by Frank Whitman

Those working in bars and other establishments where alcohol is served should be trained on how to de-escalate, how to keep safe with large amounts of cash and how to protect patrons, Galito said. He plans to work with those who insure bars and similar establishments to help get the program in place.


Galito said he plans to work with all types of businesses as it all adds to commercial activity in Guam and to the tax base and will grow the overall wealth of the community.


While G4S is most known for its surveillance abilities, it also does intelligence gathering, Galito said. For example, when groups of seemingly homeless people are seen gathering, G4S employees often have an idea of who is probably innocuous and who is likely to cause trouble. “They were thinking about how small businesses can contribute to that intelligence gathering,” he said. “They can anticipate where trouble spots might be.”


Training for situational awareness is extremely valuable, Tapao said. He highlighted the actions of a gas station employee who thwarted an armed robbery in Mangilao when she noticed a suspicious individual on the gas station premises and activated the door locks, denying the individual access to the store. “We ended up catching those individuals,” he said.


During their meeting with Galito, the mayors noted a need for more law enforcement personnel. “The largest sentiment among the mayors was the need for additional police presence in the villages,” Alig said. “We understand the fiscal and staffing challenges of the GPD. Nevertheless, physical presence may be the best crime deterrent.”


Jesse Alig

One mayor suggested having an officer assigned to each village all day.


When asked about the police officer in each village idea, Tapao replied that GPD already has a program that has been started with five Village Resource Officers. The VROs are GPD retirees hired back for the program.

VROs are attached to precincts and go out to schools and villages. They work closely with mayors and work a lot with schools, interacting often with students. They also review emergency management plans with principals for crises that might warrant lockdowns, shelter-in-place directives, or possible active shooter warnings.


Communication and cooperation are key to any community crime program, Tapao said. “It really is neighbors looking after neighbors,” he said. “You have that assurance that when you’re away, your neighbor’s watching your home. Or when you’re home, everybody’s looking out for everybody.”


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A key feature of the community-based programs is that they are, in fact, community-based, Tapao said. “It’s not owned or managed by the Guam Police Department,” he said. “It’s citizen-centric; it’s how they manage the Neighborhood Watch program. Every watch program is unique.”


In addition, police meet regularly with officials of the Guam Hotel and Restaurant Association to communicate any concerns, and they also work closely with G4S personnel. “We cross-train with them and have continuous dialogue and engagement,” he said.


In January, the Guam Visitors Bureau formed a Tumon security task force comprising representatives of GPD, G4S, the Department of Parks and Recreation, the Tumon Mayor’s Office, the Office of the Attorney General and the Guam Legislature. The task force requested security training for members of GVB’s Visitor Security Officer program in light of recent crimes.


The goal of the training is to help GPD, Park Police and other security personnel prevent future crimes by increasing presence, deterring, reporting and responding to crimes as they are able, according to Lisa Bordallo, GVB spokesperson. Since January, VSOs have been completing defensive tactics training. In February, GVB announced that five VSOs had completed the training and that training would continue for all VSOs and other security personnel.


The VSOs are stationed in the Tumon tourist area and at Plaza de España in Hagatna. 


The program was initially formed in 2014 and has “developed rapidly from ‘Hafa Adai Spirit Ambassadors’ to fully trained security officers now with CPR/AED and Defensive Tactical Training that includes control concepts, handcuffing, counterstriking, restraint systems, weapons and equipment training,” stated a GVB release.



 

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