BRADENTON, Fla. (AP) - The phrase "phone tree" calls to mind a quaint period of communication long before e-mail blasts and reverse 911.

But officials with the Bradenton Police Department say it's that old-fashioned phone chain, where one person calls two people who call two more people, that gets a share of the credit for the department lowering its major crime rates every year since 2004.

 The total number of major crimes, which include homicides, rapes, robberies, burglaries, larcenies, vehicle thefts, aggravated assaults and arsons, is down 36.7 percent since 2003 in the city of Bradenton, according to statistics from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

Bradenton's 2010 statistics show a 9.5 percent decline over 2009 - from 2,714 to 2,461 major crimes, making 2010 the seventh year in a row the city of roughly 52,000 residents has enjoyed a decline, according to FDLE records.

"We also had no murders in the city in 2010, the first time that has happened in a while," said Bradenton Police Department Deputy Chief William L. Tokajer.

The phone chain that Tokajer and others credit is operated by a roughly 700-member volunteer team, all part of the department's Neighborhood Watch Program.

Bradenton resident Tami Spyker is the Watch's program manager and the main link between residents and the department.

"The watch and phone chain that goes with it work because we residents have formed a partnership with the Bradenton Police Department," Spyker said. "We could not do this without officers wanting to get to know us and our neighborhoods."

Bradenton Police Department Sgt. James Racky and Lt. Bryan Fowler are leaders in the effort to make Bradenton an old-fashioned city like the kind long ago where the cop on the corner knew every family, Spyker said.

"Racky and Fowler have taught our residents that it's perfectly fine to call if they see anything suspicious," Spyker said. "That's the biggest obstacle we have to overcome. Residents feel they shouldn't call if it isn't a crime. But the officers say they want to know everything that is out of the ordinary."

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How it works

Bradenton Police Department officials have divided the city into six zones.

A few weeks ago, a non-watch resident called 911 with a description after a man invaded his home and fled with some of his property.

Fowler knew the invasion was in Zone 6, which runs from Cortez Road north to Manatee Avenue West and from 43rd Street West west to the Palma Sola Causeway, not including pockets that are in Manatee County.

Fowler immediately called Spyker after getting the information from 911.

 "We have a home invasion in Zone 6 and he's on the run,' " Spyker recalls Fowler saying. " We need a phone chain and we need all lights."'

 Immediately after getting the man's description, Spyker called the resident who lives closest to the address of the attempted robbery and that resident called two others who called two others.

Within an hour, many of the 580 residents in Zone 6, where crime dropped 29 percent in 2010 from 2009, were peering out of their homes looking for a suspect who fit a certain description, Spyker said.

 Per Fowler's request, all turned on their front and rear house lights so police could nab the suspect after dark.

Using a tip from a watcher, the home invasion suspect was arrested later that night, Spyker said.

"A phone chain could be 10 people or 60 or all 580," Spyker said. "It can be started when the police call us or when we can call the police."

An example of residents initiating a phone chain occurred a month ago when a watcher saw a suspect approaching a home with a crowbar.

 The watcher called Spyker, who immediately called 911 and then started the phone chain by calling nearby neighbors.

After the man with the crowbar robbed the house, watchers followed him as he moved through the neighborhood and the police soon arrested him, Spyker said.

 "Watchers never confront the suspect," Spyker said. "We simply watch from our windows and report what we see. Our watchers receive training in how to get the best descriptions of a suspect."

"I think this is a partnership between not only the watchers but also businesses," Tokajer said. "All of those people jointly get the credit for our lower crime rates because of their hard work."

(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)