KENTWOOD — Two residents of St. Helena Parish loaded two AR-15 assault rifles and a couple of pistols, climbed into a pickup truck and began patrolling the back roads of the northeastern portion of the parish Friday, looking for anyone breaking the law.
Angered by a recent rash of break-ins and burglaries, Alton Travis and Bill Birch are part of a community that have not only started a Neighborhood Watch program, but are also actively patrolling the area on their own.
“There’s a bunch of people that’s been out riding around, trying to catch (thieves),” said Dan Wall, one of the principal organizers of the Neighborhood Watch program in the parish’s Sixth Ward, in which both Travis and Birch live.
Birch, whose welding shop was broken into earlier this year, said he rides around “about every day.
“I am armed everywhere I go,” he said. “I may catch somebody breaking into my buddy’s house.”
“We are just trying to help the police out,” Travis said. “We are going to all costs to try to avoid violence.”
The two are armed, they said, so that if they do find somebody committing a burglary, they will be able to hold the person until the police arrive.
“If we have to, we will make a citizen’s arrest,” Travis said.
One Sixth Ward resident did just that when he saw people breaking into his cousin’s house.
“I went and got some help, and we held them until the cops got there,” said Alvin D. “Pee Wee” Thompson Jr.
Thompson said that he was not armed, but that one of the men with him was armed.
The thieves were attempting to take copper wire, a table saw and “anything they could grab,” Thompson said.
During their more than two-hour patrol Friday, Travis and Birch stopped at several residences.
At one house, an unfamiliar white car was parked in the driveway. When the pair approached the house, they noticed a back porch door ajar.
Birch went to the back door and knocked, while Travis attempted to call the homeowner to see if everything was okay.
The owner said that the white car belonged to him and everything was fine, Travis said.
Travis and Birch climbed back in the truck and continued their ride.
The patrols and the Neighborhood Watch program are relatively new to the area, starting after residents began to complain that too many burglaries were going unchecked.
At a community meeting Tuesday, organized by Wall and fellow Sixth Ward resident Thomas Kennedy, residents pressed parish officials on when it was legal to — and the possible consequences for —shooting an intruder.
Chester Pritchett, St. Helena Parish chief criminal deputy, warned the crowd to be careful if they shoot.
“You can’t just arbitrarily shoot somebody,” he said several days after the meeting, echoing what he told the crowd. “Deadly force has to be warranted.”
Any citizens on patrol in the parish could be held liable, both civilly and criminally, for their actions, Pritchett said.
Assistant District Attorney Richard McShan put it in simpler terms to the crowd.
“If you can live with what you did, I think the law is going to protect you,” he told the crowd. “But you’ve got to use some judgment in these cases.”
Pritchett told the more than 200 people gathered that the Sheriff’s Office had increased patrols in the area over the last five weeks, and arrests were being made.
Travis and Birch twice crossed paths Friday with Deputy Jeremy McCreary, who was patrolling the Sixth Ward at the same time.
The men and the deputy exchanged some friendly words and a few laughs before parting.
Sheriff Nat Williams said neighbors watching out for each other would help the Sheriff’s Office fight the problem.
Travis and Birch say they are pleased with the sheriff’s response to the situation.
“We got no problems with the Sheriff’s Office on this,” Travis said. “They are doing all they can.
But he and others do not plan to stop the patrols.
“They (deputies) can’t be everywhere at once,” he said.
Despite the lack of success on their Friday patrol, Travis and Birch said there are still benefits to the patrols.
“It’s helping bring the community together,” Travis said. “We are talking to more people and getting to know each other.”