Neighborhood Crime Watch Guide

Jump Links: What is a Neighborhood Watch | Why Have a Neighborhood Watch | Benefits of Neighborhood Watch |Starting a Neighborhood Watch | Responsibilities as a Watch Member | Reporting Incidents | Summary

Neighborhood Crime Watch is one of the oldest and best-known ways to prevent crime in the US. It started in the late 1960’s when there was a rise in crime, specifically in residential areas of the country. It was officially created by the National Sheriff’s Association in 1972 as a way to allow citizens and law enforcement to work together to make at-risk communities safer.

The program was first developed after numerous requests from sheriffs and police departments around the country. Law enforcement was looking for a crime prevention program to that would allow them to utilize citizen involvement, and address the increasing number of robberies and burglaries taking place, especially in rural and suburban residential areas.

After the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Centers in New York City, the Neighborhood Watch program was expanded and strengthened to help law enforcement spot potential terrorists, or terrorist activities, help with emergency response, and assist with disaster preparedness.

In fact, it is not uncommon to see Neighborhood Watch groups participating in neighborhood cleanups and other activities which impact the quality of life for community resident.

What is a Neighborhood Watch?

A Neighborhood Watch program is a group of people living in the same community who want to make their neighborhood safer by working together and in conjunction with local law enforcement to reduce crime and improve the quality of life in their neighborhood.

Neighborhood Watch can be known by different names with in a community. While the National Sheriff’s Association founded it, they encourage those that form groups in their communities to use a name that is most fitting for them. You might have seen it called Town Watch, Block Watch, Apartment Watch, or Crime Watch. Whatever the group calls themselves they will have regularly scheduled meetings to organize and plan how they will accomplish their specific goals and assign responsibilities to group members.

The program depends on volunteers to be alert and even patrol their neighborhood in an effort to discourage criminal activity. Neighborhood Watch volunteers will receive training from their local law enforcement on how to prevent or identify crime in their area. The role of the Neighborhood Watch is to provide a bit of extra security to their neighborhood.

Volunteers are discouraged from carrying weapons on patrols of their neighborhood. If they spot a crime or potential crime, they are encouraged to call law enforcement and let them deal with the criminal.

Neighborhood Watch programs also allow neighbors to get to know each other, which makes it easier to identify things that might be concerning. When neighbors know each other it also helps neighbors to feel more comfortable reporting a problem or sharing concerns with one another.

In addition to volunteer patrols, neighborhoods with watch programs are typically marked by signs that let people know the area is being watched.

Why Have a Neighborhood Watch

Crime and fear of crime can threaten a community’s well-being, as people become afraid to use to use the parks and sidewalks, begin to be suspicious of each other and businesses begin to fail or leave the area.

Installing a neighborhood Watch in a specific neighborhood can stop this cycle and make neighborhoods and communities safer from crime or the threat of crime, making residents feel safe again.

A study done in 2012 by Journalist Resource found that by 2000, almost 40% of the US residential population was covered by a citizen crime watch program. In 2008 a study conducted by the US Department of Justice found that there was a 16% decrease in crime in neighborhoods that had a Neighborhood Watch program.

While there is not enough data to know what about local Neighborhood watch groups contributes to the drop in crime, it is widely believed that these groups significantly reduce the opportunities for criminals to commit crime without fear of being caught.  

Benefits of Neighborhood Watch

A house that has a sign on the side of a road

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There are some additional benefits of Neighborhood Watch that go beyond just preventing crime. Some of the documented benefits are talked about below.

Reduces the risk of becoming a victim of crime. The risk is reduced because participants are taught to take preventative measures to substantially decrease the likelihood of becoming a victim of crime. Neighborhood Watch programs reduce the risks of home burglaries, vandalism, personal assault and fraud.

Being better prepared to respond to suspicious activity. Communication between the neighborhood and the police department is crucial. Part of the Neighborhood Watch program is learning how to identify and report suspicious activity. You will also learn to provide the police with the information that they need to resolve the issue.

Information that impacts your neighborhood. Neighborhood Watch Programs are designed to keep participants apprised of trends in criminal activity so that they will be better prepared to prevent it from occurring in their neighborhood.

Obtaining neighborhood Watch signs to post in your neighborhood as well as window decals. Criminals know that if a neighborhood has a Neighborhood Watch sign posted, the neighborhood is not an easy target. It is a notice that the neighborhood is organized and does not tolerate criminal activity in the area. The sign is proof that your neighborhood has safeguards in place to detect crime and report suspicious activity to the police.

Knowing your neighbors. Neighborhood Watch promotes getting to your neighbors and their patterns. You will learn to be aware of activity that does not fit with regular schedules. This means that when you are away, you can feel more secure about your property.

Reducing the fear of crime and making your neighborhood more livable. Neighborhood Watch increases the number of arrests and convictions by serving as a conduit between law enforcements and the community.

Starting a Neighborhood Watch

When the program was started, the sheriffs wanted to make it simple to start a watch program. It remains easy to do so today. If you would like to see if there is interest in your neighborhood you can start by hosting a meeting with your neighbors, inviting local police and other first responders to talk about why your feel a Neighborhood Watch is needed in your area.

  • Start by talking to your neighbors to gauge their interest. If they don’t understand what a Neighborhood Watch is, you could use some of the materials that are provided by the National Crime Prevention Council.

  • Contact your local law enforcement agency. Many police departments and sheriff’s offices have established programs made to assist neighborhoods in starting a Neighborhood Watch. They might even have an officer assigned specifically to assist new groups in forming.

     Call and tell someone you are interested in starting a group. They may have ideas or suggestions for starting a successful group. If an officer is not trained in Neighborhood Watch, you can learn together what needs to be done.

  • Then, at the first meeting, decide who the coordinator will be for the group. This person will help schedule regular meetings, organize meeting places and keep the group on track for meeting their goals. The coordinator is also the person that is mainly responsible for expanding and growing the membership of the group. They will act as a liaison between the group and law enforcement, coordinate training for the group and gather any materials, such as stickers or signs.  Think of the coordinator as the “leader” of the group.
  • At this first meeting, you will want to ask for block captain volunteers. These are the people who will be responsible for relaying information to the members on their block and structuring “watches” if needed to deter crime.

  • Recruit new members. Be sure that the group keeps up-to-date information on new residents moving into the neighborhood. When a new family moves in, you will want to make a special effort to involve them. Also find way to include the elderly, working parents, and young people, this will ensure the groups is supported by all members of the community and it successful, long-term.

    You will also want to assure people that participation in the program won’t place them at risk. Often, in neighborhoods where there is gang violence, people far retaliation, but police can work with the group, to be sure that calls or tips can be reported anonymously, to relieve people’s worries about that.

  • Have the coordinator work with local government or law enforcement to put up Neighborhood Watch signs, usually after at least 50% of all households are enrolled. Each city sets their own threshold for what percentage of the neighborhood needs to be a member of the Neighborhood Watch before they install a sign. But, it is worth knowing what this threshold is, as the sign alone is a deterrent to criminals.

  • Implement a “phone or text tree” so that if new information needs to be passed out quickly, each member knows who they are responsible to contact.

  • Create a system that will allow the group to interact with all the neighbors to identify any potential concerns that need to be addressed in the next group meeting.

What Are the Major Components of a Neighborhood Watch?

  • Community meetings. These should be set up on a regular basis such as monthly or bi-monthly. Ideally you want these meetings to be at a set interval and to take place in the neighborhood itself.

  • Citizens’ or community patrol. A citizens’ patrol is made up of volunteers who walk or drive through the community and alert police to crime and questionable activities.

  • Communications. These can be a simple as a weekly flier posted on community announcement boards to a newsletter that updates neighbors on the progress of the program to a neighborhood electronic bulletin board.

  • Special events. These are crucial to keep the program going and growing. Host talks or seminars that focus on current issues such as hate or bias-motivated violence, crime in schools, teenage alcohol and other drug abuse or domestic violence. Adopt a park or school playground and paint over graffiti. Sponsor a block party, holiday dinner, or volleyball or softball game that will provide neighbors a chance to get to know each other.

  • Other aspects of community safety. For instance, start a block parent program to help children in emergency situations.

  • Community Involvement. Get to know your neighbors, and who belongs in your neighborhood and who doesn’t. You want to be able to spot intruders quickly, if you don’t know who currently lives in your neighborhood, you won’t notice when someone doesn’t belong.

Responsibilities as a Watch Member

The main responsibility of a those that join the neighborhood watch, is to be a good neighbor by actively watching out for neighbors, their properties and homes by reporting suspicious activity to the police. The best way to do this to start is by getting to know the three neighbors across the street from your home, your neighbors on each side, and the three neighbors behind your residence.

You should have a heightened awareness for your neighbor’s welfare, and you should be more than willing to report suspicious activity to the police. Citizens can be assured that when they report suspicious activity, their name will be held in strictest confidence.

WHAT to Look For:

  • Anyone screaming or someone that is shouting for help.
  • Someone looking in windows of houses.
  • Anyone looking in the windows of parked cars.
  • Property being taken out of houses where no one is at home.
  • Cars, van, or trucks moving slowly or circling the neighborhood, with no apparent destination or without lights.
  • A stranger sitting in a car for long periods of time.
  • Any adult (current residents or strangers) that is stopping to talk to a child or children.
  • Anyone lurking in the neighborhood that doesn’t live there.

Report these incidents to the police or sheriffs’ department. If you do report an issue, be sure that you talk about what happened and any ongoing concerns you may have with your neighbors.

Reporting Incidents

When you notice that something is amiss or make you feel uneasy, take note of exactly where it is happening, what is taking place and any details you can gather about the people involved. If they are in a car you could get the make and model and the license plate number, if they are walking notice their height, weight, build, hair color and what they are wearing. This will help you to give the authorities as much information as possible when they come check it out.

Here is the process to alert police or first responders to a potential issue:

  • Call 9-1-1 if it is in an emergency, otherwise, call your local non-emergency number.
  • Give your name and address.
  • Give the details about what you’re reporting and why.
  • Briefly describe the suspect: sex and race, age, height, weight, hair color, clothing, distinctive characteristics such as a beard, mustache, scars, or accent.
  • Describe the vehicle if one was involved: color; make, model, year, license plate, and special features such as stickers.
  • Any other details that will help the police locate them.

While no neighborhood watch group is exactly the same, below is a list of some additional tips and suggestions that can help your neighborhood watch be successful:

  • Work with the police or sheriff’s office. These agencies are critical to a Watch group’s credibility and are the source of necessary information and training.
  • Link up with your victims’ services office to get your members trained in helping victims of crime.
  • Hold regular meetings to help residents get to know each other and to decide upon program strategies and activities.
  • Consider linking with an existing organization, such as a citizens’ association, community development office, tenants’ association, or housing authority. They may be able to provide an existing infrastructure you can use.
  • Canvass door-to-door to recruit members.
  • Ask people who seldom leave their homes to be “window watchers,” looking out for children and reporting any unusual activities in the neighborhood.
  • Translate crime and drug prevention materials into Spanish or other languages needed by non-English speakers in your community. If necessary, have a translator at meetings.
  • Sponsor a crime and drug prevention fair at a church hall, temple, shopping mall, or community center.
  • Gather the facts about crime in your neighborhood. Check police reports, conduct victimization surveys, and learn residents’ perceptions about crimes. Often, residents’ opinions are not supported by facts, and accurate information can reduce the fear of crime.
  • Physical conditions like abandoned cars or overgrown vacant lots contribute to crime. The group can sponsor cleanups and encourage residents to beautify the area.
  • Ask Residents to turn on outdoor lights at night, as it helps to deter criminals.
  • Work with small businesses to repair rundown storefronts, clean up littered streets, and create jobs for young people.
  • Start a block parent program to help children cope with emergencies while walking to and from school or playing in the area.
  • Emphasize that Watch groups are not vigilantes and should not assume the role of the police. Their duty is to ask neighbors to be alert, observant, and caring—and to report suspicious activity or crimes immediately to the police.

Summary

Neighborhood Watch programs are beneficial to a community in a variety of ways, that are not limited to just reducing crime. Most communities would benefit from starting and growing a Neighborhood Watch in their area, it adds to the appeal as new neighbors consider moving into the area, keeps people engaged and keeps the community safer.