PIEDMONT -- The Baja Piedmont Neighborhood Watch held its official kickoff meeting Saturday with about 100 people in attendance, including Piedmont police Chief Rikki Goede as the guest speaker.
The neighborhood accounts for 25 percent of crime that happens in Piedmont, Goede said.
"Piedmont Baja are the streets west of Grand Avenue," said Mark Herrick, who coordinated the launch of the watch group in his neighborhood. "We have 19 different blocks, each with its own block captain."
Herrick told the audience, who gathered in the auditorium at Beach Elementary School, that neighborhood watch has twin purposes -- to prevent crime and to organize disaster preparedness.
"Neighborhood watch is about strengthening the community," Herrick said. "Watch works with the police department to be a great observer of suspicious behavior."
Vice Mayor Margaret Fujioka, who is the City Council's liaison with Piedmont's Public Safety Committee, talked about the necessity for neighborhood watch. Crime in Piedmont rose 20 percent in 2012 over the previous year, and two home invasions occurred in January.
"One positive that came out of the home invasions is that neighbors are now communicating with each other," Fujioka said.
She urged audience members to attend the May 6 City Council meeting.
"We will be discussing whether to spend an estimated $1.63 million per year to fund vehicle license plate readers and increase the police force," the vice mayor said. "We need to work as a community and get input from its citizens."
The police chief explained that vehicle license plate readers are a great tool and are used by many surrounding cities. They take a snapshot of every license plate -- including motorbikes -- at major entrance and exit points to the city.
"The readers allow us to see who is coming in and who is going out," Goede said. "The data is run against a 'hot list' so that if a suspicious car enters the city, it will automatically send a 'hit' to our officers."
Goede stressed that the readers are not going to solve all crime.
"It's just another tool in our toolbox," Goede said. "I like to use the three-legged-stool example -- we need technology, but also the police department solving crimes and community partnership. All the legs have to be sturdy."
Since the January home invasions, calls to the police department have increased -- and crime has dropped, Goede said.
"If you see suspicious behavior, you have to call us promptly," said Goede, who urged people not to be hesitant about calling. "It's not about race, gender or ethnicity; it's about action."
Goede said most crimes in Piedmont are related to burglaries of homes and cars.
"I don't want people freaking out about home invasion," Goede said. "It's an anomaly, it doesn't happen often, even in Oakland."
Goede spent much of her one-hour presentation on what she called "how to beat the burglar," giving the audience dozens of useful tips on how to protect their homes -- especially when they're out of the house.
"I talk about the 3 Ls -- locks, lights and landscaping," Goede said. "Nothing deters a burglar more than a well-lit house."
She recommended sturdy locks, security doors, trimming down bushes where crooks could hide, hanging "beware of dog" signs -- even a product called Rex Plus, which sounds like a barking dog.
Right on cue, a little tabby cat strolled into the Beach school auditorium and jumped on stage.
"Oh, a cat burglar," joked Goede, drawing laughter from the audience.
The chief also talked about things to do when you're on vacation and the home is vacant.
"Park a car in the driveway so it looks like somebody's home; don't stop your newspapers because burglars are scouting out those signs -- have your neighbors pick them up instead; also ask your neighbors to put out garbage cans on trash day," she said. "Anything to make a crook think that somebody's home."
Goede said neighbors should report suspicious behavior, such as someone sitting in a parked car who might be scouting out the neighborhood.
"Crooks don't go where the neighbors are paying attention," she said. "They'll go to where neighbors are not paying attention."
One woman in the audience with small children asked how to prevent home invasion.
"You can't prevent it, but take as many steps as you can to secure the home, especially installing metal security doors," Goede advised. "Be careful who you let in the house -- if you're hiring a contractor, make sure they're licensed and bonded."
She also advised against teens texting and talking on a cell phone while out walking because it's easy for a thief to just grab it. In conclusion, Goede urged people not to be heroes in the event criminals pull guns on them.
"No property you own is worth your life or the life of a loved one," Goede said. "Give them what they want, but make a mental image of the person so we can try to track them down."