COTTAGE GROVE — The 17-officer Cottage Grove Police Department will take any help it can get to carry out its public safety mission.
“We can’t be everywhere at once,” Police Chief Scott Shepherd said.
Facebook, however, seemingly is.
With an understanding of the social media giant’s reach, a local resident in early 2017 decided he’d take the longstanding “observe and report” approach practiced by neighborhood watch groups and apply it online.
Thus was born the Cottage Grove Prowler Tracker Network, a now-1,100-member Facebook group that tracks property crime — along with the movements of several known local criminals — in near real-time, with the goal of making Cottage Grove a safer place to live. It’s part of a growing trend of community groups that use computers and cellphones to keep an eye out for, and share information about, illegal activity.
“The key to our group (in Cottage Grove) is numbers,” group administrator Sam Stoufer said. “We want to have people on every block in this city.”
The 48-year-old website designer moved to Cottage Grove from San Diego about nine years ago. He said he began to notice an uptick in prowlerlike activity in town in 2015 and came to the conclusion that a small group of people represented a large part of the problem.
Stoufer started the Facebook group in April 2017, when he posted an initial message about his objective and suggested people buy security cameras for documenting what he called “shady activity.”
The group’s growth blossomed slowly at first and has “exploded” in recent months, he said.
“At this rate, I wouldn’t be surprised if we get to 2,000 in a few more months,” Stoufer said.
That’s a fairly ambitious prediction, considering U.S. Census estimates put Cottage Grove’s population at slightly more than 10,000.
Perhaps half of the city’s police officers are part of the Facebook group, officer Jarrod Butler said.
Shepherd, the department’s chief, said police appreciate the online crime-reporting effort by Stoufer and other community members interested in making Cottage Grove a more livable place. Public safety, after all, is the police department’s main job.
“I think for the most part it is positive,” Shepherd said of the online group. “We need help wherever people are willing to help, and these kinds of groups are able to do that.”
Serving as a resource for police — Shepherd said officers recently arrested a suspect on theft and trespass charges after seeing the incident documented on the Facebook page — is just part of what the community network does.
Stoufer emphasized the group’s primary service is to its own members. By sharing information regarding suspicious activity, Cottage Grove residents “can be more vigilant in securing their home, vehicles and property,” he said.
“It’s neighbors helping neighbors,” he said. Group members report and photograph a handful of local scofflaws while also sharing location information and passing along tips about parts of town where public safety issues seem to be concentrated.
Many of the posts are similar to this one, which appeared Oct. 13: “Just woke up to two guys jumping the fence from our back yard. 16th and Curry. There are two of them. One was wearing khaki colored pants with a black hoodie. Called CGPD. They were already looking for these two guys it sounds like.”
The information posted by group members generally appears to be accurate, police say. Butler, who has worked eight years as a Cottage Grove police officer, confirmed that three men receiving significant attention in recent posts all have criminal records.
Stoufer — who stressed that group members are not to operate as vigilantes — said one of the men whose name is included in a number of posts told a mutual acquaintance a few weeks ago that he didn’t appreciate his whereabouts being tracked by group members. “So we definitely are starting to be on the prowler community’s radar,” Stoufer said.
It’s been said that perception is reality, and it may be true that crime is up in certain areas and neighborhoods in Cottage Grove. Crime statistics compiled by Oregon State Police, however, show that the incidence of thefts in the city remains fairly flat. In fact, 77 larcenies were reported during the first three months of 2017. During that same time period this year, the exact same number of larcenies was reported.
“I think that historically, (concern about rising property crime) is a community issue that comes and goes,” said Shepherd, who has been a full-time police officer in Cottage Grove since 1994.
“Not that that sort of crime comes and goes, but there are certain (times) where it is a little bit more prevalent, or at least a little more noticeable to people in our community,” Shepherd said.
Back when Shepherd started his career, traditional neighborhood watch groups were more active than they are nowadays. Although that activity has dwindled over the years, Lane County still has 14 active groups — most of them in Eugene, and none in Cottage Grove — registered with National Neighborhood Watch, according to its website.
While the Cottage Grove-centered Facebook group started by Stoufer has grown somewhat organically, it’s not exactly unique. A television station in Connecticut earlier this month reported on several groups in that state that work as neighborhood information-sharing services, spreading the word about everything from police scanner traffic to missing animals. Another Facebook group, in Alabama, was featured last year in a story about its mission to help residents of one community find items that had been stolen.
In other areas of the U.S., police agencies have joined mobile apps such as Neighbors to help provide residents with real-time crime information, according to reports.
“I think that technology has made it a lot easier for people to share what they’re seeing in their neighborhoods,” Shepherd said. “And we stand to benefit from that.”