In 1966, Fairfax County police officers were still using patrol cars from a fleet of 1949 Plymouth cruisers, and bulldozers were just starting to move dirt around to create something called the “beltway.”
At that point in time, the Camelot subdivision in Annandale was considered the westernmost development of Fairfax County. It stood like an island of single-family homes in an otherwise generally unpopulated area.
That year, according to a 2009 Fairfax County Board of Supervisors resolution, the roots for the Camelot Community Neighborhood Watch program was founded.
“It was called the Camelot Patrol, and consisted of two guys who would get in a car, hang hand-made cardboard ‘PATROL’ signs out the windows and patrol the neighborhood on a random schedule,” said Camelot resident Frank Vajda, 76. “Camelot was pretty isolated out here and residents needed to watch out for one another.”
According to Vajda, who today is the coordinator of the Camelot Community Patrol Neighborhood Watch Group, the Camelot Patrol that began in 1966 was officially designated as one of the first Neighborhood Watch groups in the country 13 years later, in March 1979.
The group will celebrate its 35-year anniversary at Camelot Elementary School on March 18.
“Today we are the oldest continuously active Neighborhood Watch Group in the United States,” he said.
“‘Continuously active’ is an important qualifier because we were not the first ‘official’ Neighborhood Watch group in America. There were at least three before us, but none of them lasted. Once we were officially established, however, we never quit.”
Vajda said that over the years, the original two-man patrol developed into a system involving one person who ran a base station for a week, and several patrollers who would report to “base” to get their assignments and equipment, which included magnetic signs to go on their cars, and a portable citizen band radio.
Today, Vajda says the group has a roster of about 50 volunteer patrollers, five of whom serve as assistant coordinators and run the base stations. The CB radios have been replaced with cellphones.
In 2013, Camelot Neighborhood Watch volunteers conducted 599 patrols for an average of 50 per month. Vajda said that breaks down to a total of 763 hours, or an average of 64 hours per volunteer per month.
“Our volunteers patrol by vehicle, bicycle and on foot,” he said. “Each of them put in anywhere from 24 to 48 hours per year. We have one person, Bob Hamilton, who is our champion patroller who biked or walked an incredible 154 patrols in 2013, logging 123 total hours. We have another patroller, Ken Hopke, who has been with us for 30 years.
“I moved here in 1983 from California,” said Hopke, 64. “I began patrolling the next year when a neighbor came up to me and bluntly said ‘you’re going on patrol,’ and I have been doing it ever since.”
Vajda, who says the average national lifespan of a Neighborhood Watch program is only two years, attributes the longevity of the Camelot group to the neighborhood’s community involvement, which he says has contributed to its continuity.
The program also is run with an almost military discipline.
Patrols are referred to as “tours” and Vajda is in charge of the program’s “housewatch” list, in which residents report when they will be out of town. The housewatch list is updated daily and handed out to patrollers, who pay special attention to those homes.
“There is a reason for the military-like discipline,” Vajda said. “The founder and first coordinator, Paul Cevey, was an Army veteran. He ran it for 12 years. The second coordinator, Dave Shonerd, who ran it for 11 years, was a Navy veteran, and I am an Air Force vet.”
Hopke says the Camelot Neighborhood Watch program serves as a way to foster community involvement. “It almost creates an expectation,” he said. “If you move into this neighborhood, expect to get involved.”
Over the years, that community involvement has not gone unnoticed.
“I am so proud of Camelot,” said Fairfax County Supervisor Penny Gross (D-Mason). “That community is extraordinarily involved and it is wonderful to watch. When Fairfax County was undergoing some political redistricting in 2011, I fought tooth and nail to keep Camelot. I am glad I was successful.”
The Fairfax County Police Department’s Mason District also has recognized the program as one of the most effective crime-reduction units in the country.
“Camelot is one of the most crime-free communities in all of Fairfax County,” said Brendan Murphy, crime prevention officer for the FCPD’s Mason District station. “Frank is in constant contact with me, and provides me with his reports. Camelot’s Neighborhood Watch program serves as an impressive model for other Neighborhood Watch programs across the nation.”
The Virginia Crime Prevention Association also has recognized Camelot’s Neighborhood Watch program as the “Best Neighborhood Watch in Virginia.”
Vajda says he is proud of the accolades and to be part of such a well-recognized tradition.
“The active patrols are the most visible part of it,” he said. “But it is the people who live here and get involved who make it work. To me, Neighborhood Watch is just that, ‘neighbors watching their hood.’”