ANTIOCH -- Juan Gallo sees his share of trouble in the course of his work on Antioch's streets: Teens settling disputes with their fists, loud domestic squabbles, streets cordoned off in the wake of a homicide and, once, a burglary in progress.

But he was surprised during a recent training session to learn how few police officers are patrolling the city at any one time.

"It was like, 'Wow -- that's amazing,'" said Gallo, a garbage truck driver.

It's those worrisome numbers -- anywhere from 13 to as few as five black-and-whites per shift for 105,000 residents -- that has prompted Antioch Police Department to reach out to the city's garbage disposal provider, Republic Services Inc., as well as the U.S. Postal Service.

In an effort to marshal the eyes and ears of those who also regularly canvass the city, police have given garbage truck drivers and mail carriers tips on how to be effective witnesses if they encounter crime on their routes.

"These (workers) know the neighborhoods like the back of their hands, so if they see suspicious activity, they can document it," said Councilman Tony Tiscareno, who pitched the idea to Republic Services' general manager after learning that in the mid-1990s the city had enlisted the cooperation of its previous trash collection contractor for the same purpose.

Dubbed "We're Looking Out For You," the push to engage these two groups of employees in what amounts to a loose-knit Neighborhood Watch group on a massive scale was encapsulated in a brief appeal to postal workers Friday morning.


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"If you see something out of place -- and you know what it is -- we're just asking you to call," Lt. Tammany Brooks told dozens of carriers before they embarked on their routes.

Police aren't asking anyone to play the hero and chase after a suspect, Brooks said. What they need is people to be careful observers, to note key details that can help put criminals behind bars.

"This benefits the community and you are part of that," Brooks said.

As a reminder, drivers received a laminated card with police dispatch's nonemergency phone number and a list of questions designed to focus witnesses' attention on specifics.

Mail carrier Ron Pato already is using his powers of observation to fight crime on his rounds in southeast Antioch.

After 17 years, he knows exactly who lives where, what kind of vehicle they drive, when they're at work and on vacation.

Pato looks for side gates that shouldn't be open as well as signs that attract burglars such as newspapers piled up in the driveway and trash bins that are still in the street after collection day.

"When you do a route a long time you kind of get an idea," he said.

Members of the general public, such as Pato, can be effective tools for a police department that's chronically short-staffed.

Although the agency has the money for 102 police, it has just 87 full-time officers because the application process is so rigorous that it can't hire them fast enough to offset those who retire or quit.

By way of comparison, the city briefly had 126 sworn officers in 2007 before the economy soured.

In addition, Antioch is in the midst of what some city leaders have called a "crime emergency" because its overall crime rate jumped by 24.2 percent in 2012 compared with the previous year.

Even so, the combined total of violent and property crimes fell by 19.8 percent during the first quarter of this year compared with the same period in 2012.

Violent crimes alone decreased by 7 percent, mostly because of a slight dip in aggravated assaults. The year before, in 2012, violent crime shot up by 30.6 percent. Police Chief Allan Cantando credits this year's good news in part to more active Neighborhood Watch groups.

Antioch police's tactics reflect what's already happening elsewhere: Fairfield police established a partnership with Republic Services in January.

Now the city is talking about expanding the reach of its civilian watchdogs: Tiscareno wants to include Antioch's chamber of commerce and has invited the Delta Association of Realtors to jump on board.

"They are already out and about selling homes. The more eyes and ears out there, the better," he said.

Paul Burgarino contributed to this report. Contact him at 925-779-7164 or follow him at Twitter.com/PaulBurgarino. Contact Rowena Coetsee at 925-779-7141. Follow her at Twitter.com/RowenaCoetsee.

CRIME WATCH TIPS
If you see a crime in progress or a situation that could be life-threatening, call 9-1-1. For everything else, call Antioch Police Department's nonemergency line: 925-778-2441.
Don't put off calling because you think a matter is too trivial and police are too busy.
You can remain anonymous; even if a dispatcher asks for your name, you don't have to identify yourself.
Be prepared to report the following details if you spot trouble:
  • Where is it happening?
  • Who's involved?
  • Describe the person: Race, age, sex, height, weight, hair, clothing
  • Describe the vehicle: Make, model, color, number of doors, license plate
  • What direction is it traveling?
  • Are weapons involved?
  • Is anyone hurt?