“We’re not replacing the police, we are the eyes and ears for our community,” says Walsall app group

Bally Sohal of Park Hall Area Neighbourhood Watch, Councillor Waheed Rasab, Amit Verma of Park Hall Area Neighbourhood Watch
Bally Sohal of Park Hall Area Neighbourhood Watch, Councillor Waheed Rasab, Amit Verma of Park Hall Area Neighbourhood Watch

Thieves once struck in the affluent Park Hall area on a daily basis to steal cars and valuables from people’s homes, causing distress to the residents.

But all that changed when the Park Hall Neighbourhood Watch WhatsApp group was set up to enable red alerts to be sent to hundreds of people as soon as they are aware of a crime taking place.

Members are often at the scene within seconds of a message flashing up on their phones to provide reassurance for neighbours as well as gathering vital information for the police.

The group made national headlines in May 2018 when they helped chase down and catch a suspected burglar, with exits from the street being blocked off as messages tracked the offender’s movements.

Earlier this month around 100 members rushed to support Councillor Waheed Rasab when raiders smashed their way into his home making off with thousands of pounds worth of jewellery and cash.

The service was set up by residents Amit Verma and Bally Sohal ,of Park Hall Area Neighbourhood Watch, who wanted to take action after their families were targeted.

Within four years, the WhatsApp group has attracted more than 980 members with a further 64 taking part in Street Watch.

Mr Verma, also chairman of Park Hall Area Neighbourhood Watch said: “My family background is we are jewellers so we’ve always been a target, but then we realised there were so many residents who became targets and it was concerning.

“That’s when we thought we needed to open the group because when burglaries were happening, we were finding out too late.

“So for people to come to their aid, it would take an hour or two. But now we’ve found a way to communicate within seconds.

“Sometimes, we’re even in a position where we get information as offenders have just made entry so that’s where it all started.

“It’s one of the most affluent areas around here and naturally you’ve got the more expensive newer cars here and it was a burglars’ heaven. They would come in numbers.

“When there are incidents now, we can get lots of residents at the scene within two minutes to provide support and reassurance.”

Mr Sohal said an incident where his nephew was attacked by a gang of baseball bat wielding thugs sparked his desire to get involved.

He said: “Myself and a few others went to meet with the sergeant at the time and he said with integrity that they didn’t have the police numbers. But he understood us.

“So we thought we’ve got to do something about this. We can either let it happen or be part of the solution.

“From that, Amit and I became members of Park Hall Neighbourhood Watch. We sat in a committee meeting thinking we were just going to tell them about our WhatsApp group, but suddenly we were voted in as committee members.

“From that, we’ve naturally grown. Each WhatsApp group can have a maximum of 256 people so now, because we have over 1,000 members and administrators, we have six groups with information being passed between them.

“They are manned by an admin team of volunteers who all do a great job 24-7, 365 days a year. They are watching that group for alerts of suspicious activities. That gives the reassurances to the community.

“It’s about awareness, reassurance and security advice for people to keep themselves safe. On top of that we have a Street Watch programme we run.

“Where in the past an alarm would go off and people would just not bother, people are now looking and going out. We have a red, amber, green situation for warnings based on the level of the incident.

“We’re not replacing the police, we are the eyes and ears for our community. We have an amazing relationship with the police and we give them real time information. It saves them time because once we give them valuable information they don’t have to go door knocking.

“By being vigilant and having visibility, if a burglar is in the area, they’ll be thinking ‘what the hell is going on?’ If people switch on their lights and then the whole road lights up, the burglar would realise something is going on.”

The success of the WhatsApp group has resulted in a noticeable drop in incidents compared with what used to happen before 2017.

Mr Sohal said: “What we don’t know is how many burglaries have been prevented.

“Every day, when we first set up the WhatsApp our phones were constantly going off – we would have a burglary, a car stolen, every single day and night. There was something going on in the estate.

“But now there have been periods for months nothing is happening. It has come down.”

Mr Sohal added members of the community have also taken on other activities to improve the area such as litter picking and setting up a speed watch programme.

He said: “Our mission statement is ‘To Build a Stronger, Safer and Caring Community’.”

For more details visit website phanw.com.

Express & Star Walsall