Can a neighborhood watch program really help keep your community safe?
On March 13, 1964, 28-year-old Catherine “Kitty” Genovese was murdered outside her New York City apartment. Genovese’s attack lasted around 30 minutes, and while many people erroneously believe that her neighbors heard the attack but did nothing, it’s true that any help or intervention they offered came too late. From her murder came three developments:
- The discovery of the Bystander Effect, a psychological phenomenon that suggests the more people who witness a crime, the less likely an observer will take action.
- The 911 emergency system.
- Good Samaritan laws and neighborhood watch groups.
What is a neighborhood watch?
Americans are losing their neighborhood connections. A 2015 City Observatory report found that only 20% of people regularly spend time with the people living next to them, and one-third have never interacted with them. While you don’t need to be best friends with your neighbors, maintaining a relationship through a neighborhood watch program could make a difference in your community. The goals of neighborhood watch groups are:
- Form first-name relationships and recognition with people in your area.
- Keep the community informed about local crime and suspicious activity.
- Communicate with law enforcement to help them act quickly.
Neighborhood watch programs are usually run by a captain or organizer who liaises with the local police department and moderates group discussions and meetings. For Lindsey Christel of Sumner, Wash., a neighborhood watch group was long overdue.
“I started ‘Sumner WA Neighborhood Watch & News’ about two-and-a-half years ago because I care about our small, little town,” she said. “It brings awareness of what’s going on around us.”
Awareness has proven effective. A National Crime Prevention Council analysis of a 2006 academic study found a 16% crime reduction in neighborhoods with citizen policing and vigilance. Christel says that a common interest in public safety can bring neighbors closer together. “Even though our group is a neighborhood watch, it’s also about events and positive things that Sumner offers its community.”
What neighborhood watches can (and can’t) do
One of the main goals of a neighborhood watch group is to help law enforcement prevent crime, but what does that mean? “‘See something, say something’ originated with the neighborhood watch effort,” said Leonard Sipes, a retired senior public affairs specialist and former Senior Specialist for Crime Prevention and Security for the National Criminal Justice Reference Service. “Neighborhood watch is simply the eyes and ears of law enforcement.”
The eyes and ears approach is recommended in the Bureau of Justice Assistance’s Neighborhood Watch Manual, which details four categories of incidents to report:
- Suspicious activities.
- Unknown people and vehicles.
- Illegal activity.
- Unusual events or dangerous situations.
A neighborhood watch member who witnesses anything on this list should:
- Dial 911 or call the police department.
- Tell the call taker what happened and the exact location.
- Give a detailed description of individuals or vehicles.
You can also alert the members of your group in the immediate area if you feel they are in danger, a task Sipes said has gotten easier with technology. “In today’s social media world with apps like Nextdoor and Facebook groups, social media allows for instant community-police communication,” he said. “Some suggest that apps and social pages are the new neighborhood watch because they combine training and communications without formal meetings. Add shared video devices like Ring and you have an automated neighborhood watch. So, the concept is as powerful as ever because apps and social media eliminate the time barriers to participation.”
While you can communicate with fellow members, the BJA manual notes that neighborhood watch groups should never try to interfere or take matters into their own hands. “Trained law enforcement should be the only ones ever to take action based on observations of suspicious activities.”
How to start a neighborhood watch
If you’re interested in changing the safety measures in your community, why not register a local neighborhood watch group? National Neighborhood Watch lists a five-step process on their website, including:
- Talk to your neighbors to recruit support. Explain your concerns about crime in the area and the need for community attention. If you’re nervous about knocking on doors, consider starting a Facebook or Meetup group to get things moving.
- Collaboration with law enforcement is crucial. Contact your local police department to express your interest in a neighborhood watch, and ask them to meet with your group to discuss the best ways to help your community.
- Hold your first meeting to discuss concerns, action items and future plans.
- Create a communication plan to decide how your group members will keep in touch.
- Take action by holding meetings and events.
While there’s no substitute for law enforcement, a neighborhood watch program can connect and create a more vigilant community. Work with your local police station and your neighbors to develop a plan that addresses crime with safety in mind.