Aug. 24—FREEMAN, S.D. — A bicycle goes missing. An unfamiliar person takes photos through an open garage door. A public bathroom is vandalized.
When Freeman resident Max Alderson saw it happening recently in the town of about 1,300 along Highway 81, he decided to reach out to law enforcement and his neighbors about taking action.
"When I moved here in 2021, it seemed like a little peaceful farming town, you could call it," said Alderson, who transplanted to Freeman after living in Oklahoma. "Then I started paying closer attention and saw that there were things going on that shouldn't be."
Alderson and his fellow neighbors decided to form a local
Neighborhood Watch program
to counter what he described as concerning activity around town. The program, a national crime prevention program administered by the National Sheriff's Association, has been established in communities of all sizes around the United States, including some of the larger communities in South Dakota such as Sioux Falls, Aberdeen and Rapid City.
Since 1972, the program has been a national initiative and operates under an "extra eyes and ears" concept, according to the program website. It provides infrastructure that brings together local officials, law enforcement and citizens for protection of their communities.
Alderson noticed an increase in suspicious and criminal activity within the community since he arrived. A bicycle was stolen over the summer near one of the schools. A restroom at the Freeman Prairie Arboretum was vandalized. And Alderson said he and others have noticed individuals taking photos of residential property.
He surmised having local residents actively keeping an eye out for problems could help the town's police force, which numbers two with a chief and a patrol officer.
Alderson reached out to Jay Slevin, chief of police for Freeman, about starting a local chapter of the Neighborhood Watch program, and Slevin agreed it could be a useful tool.
"I actually had a couple of members of the public who approached me with interest in it," Slevin said. "People know that we're not around-the-clock coverage in Freeman, and getting a program like this might help cover those gaps."
Alderson and Slevin both recently took part in a public informational meeting, bringing the idea to the public. The initial meeting drew about 50 people who showed interest in the concept, which was enough for organizers to proceed with establishing a formal Neighborhood Watch chapter. Part of that process involves Slevin vetting organization members to make sure they have no outstanding warrants or other issues that may make them a liability to the program and to prevent false reports that could lead to harassment.
From a law enforcement standpoint, the program has the potential to cut down on burglaries, vandalism and even sex crimes. Even with the program only in its formative stages, it has gotten some results, Slevin said.
"In a little bit of time that we've been getting this up and running it's already resulted in an arrest. It's working," Slevin said.
As a relatively recent arrival in Freeman, Alderson said some established residents have questioned the need for the program, but he said many have come around and are now receptive to the idea. He noted that the program is not being started to keep a close eye on each other's neighbors, but rather to keep an eye out for activity in the community that clearly does not belong.
Both Slevin and Alderson said they weren't aware of many other Neighborhood Watch programs in small communities in the state, though they aren't uncommon in South Dakota's largest cities. But with crime gradually increasing on a number of fronts, every effort to make a community safer should be considered, Slevin said.
"I think of Freeman as a little paradise that not very many people know of, but it's inevitably going to grow and crime will follow," said Slevin, who grew up in Freeman and graduated from Freeman High School. "Neighborhood Watch can keep that lovely small town feel for quite a bit longer, and it's an alternative to adding police officers, because I don't think that's in the budget. Our hours are already stretched. I'm putting in 55 hours per week myself."
The group has created
a Facebook page
that has garnered almost 200 followers along with an email address that those interested in the program can contact for more information. Alderson said he would also like to do outreach at the local schools and to begin recording group meetings so those who can't attend can catch up later.
It's a lot of work, but if it means preserving the safe, secure feeling of living in a small town like Freeman, it will be worth it.
"People are speaking up when they were afraid to before," Alderson said. "I strongly believe its working."
More information can be found by contacting
or the Freeman Police Department at 605-925-7025.