When you see a neighborhood watch sign on a street corner--you know the one--with a big red line slashing across the dark silhouette of a man in a fedora and trench coat, you automatically feel safer. Why? Because you know inhabitants of the neighborhood are banding together to take an active stand against crime and vandalism in their local community.
Since its beginnings in the early 70’s, the National Neighborhood Watch program, a branch of the National Sheriff’s Association, has been motivating citizens to rally together and work with local law enforcement to prevent neighborhood crime. While a neighborhood watch isn’t a vigilante task force, it can be empowering for residents of a community that often feel helpless. Does your local area lack a neighborhood watch program? Now’s the time to start one, and we’ll help you through it, step-by-step.
Why start a neighborhood watch?
There’s several key reasons for starting a neighborhood watch program in your neighborhood. Let’s go over them here.
A neighborhood watch helps reduce crime and deters criminals from operating in your neighborhood.
This is the big reason for starting a watch, and they do work to lower neighborhood crime. While there is a lack of recent studies on neighborhood watch programs, a 2008 U.S. Justice Department meta-analysis of U.S., U.K. and Canadian research done between 1977 and 1994 found that there was a 16% average decrease in crime compared to control areas that lacked a neighborhood watch. There is no more effect step that residents of a neighborhood can take to reduce crime in their area.
Participating in a neighborhood strengthens the bonds within a community and bolsters civic pride.
These days, with fewer neighborhood residents knowing and having relationships with their neighbors than in the past, according to a recent Pew study, a neighborhood watch is a perfect way for residents to increase interaction with those that they live amongst. When residents of a community cooperate towards a common goal, they develop lifelong bonds and a renewed sense of trust in one another. A watch also grants a community a stronger sense of self-identity and responsibility to do well by their neighbors.
A neighborhood watch raises the level of cooperation between residents and local law enforcement, while increasing faith in the police.
The first step in kicking off any neighborhood watch is contacting the local police, and they should play an active role throughout a watch’s history. Despite their role in protecting the neighborhood, watch members are always encouraged to call the police in the event of suspicious activity, rather than personally intervening. This cooperative relationship puts a human face on the local police force and enhances the community’s faith in them.
When kids witness their parents and neighbors putting an effort towards keeping the neighborhood safe, it motivates them to follow suit when they come of age. Children learn best by example, so showing them that you care about their safety and the greater good of the community points them in the right direction.
A neighborhood watch helps local residents to feel safe and secure, increasing their quality of life. When people worry less about becoming a victim of crime or vandalism, they can focus on the important things in life, i.e., their professions, their favorite pastimes, and their loved ones.
Checklist: Starting a neighborhood watch
The following are the key steps anyone committed to enacting a neighborhood watch should follow:
Step 1: Notify the local law enforcement agency.
The local police department in your community will play an integral role in your neighborhood watch program, so informing them of your intention to start a program, before all else, is key. You’ll want to secure their support and commitment to participation. If possible, request that an officer be present during the first meeting of a neighborhood watch to answer questions and demonstrate support.
Step 2: Hold an initial meeting.
Since it’s likely the most important meeting your neighborhood watch will hold, make sure that your first neighborhood watch meeting is scheduled at a date and time when residents of the neighborhood will be able to attend, such as a weekend afternoon or evening during the middle of the week. Hold the meeting in a convenient, well-known location like a community center, or library.
The keynote meeting is your chance to demonstrate why a neighborhood watch will be effective and beneficial towards the community, so come well-prepared with guidelines and goals in place. Be ready to answer any and all questions members of your community may have, and have a police officer present to assist in guiding the meeting.
Step 3: Put the word out.
Do everything in your power to let residents--and potential criminals--know that a neighborhood watch is in effect. The best way to do this is by distributing flyers in the mailboxes of every home in the community detailing the goals of your program, and providing phone numbers that residents may call with questions or concerns. Signs and decals posted around the neighborhood that indicate that your neighborhood is protected by a watch is another key element of spreading the word.
Step 4: Organize and assign roles.
Being well-organized and staffed is an important element of an effective program. Have an action plan in place. Know the schedules and availability of participating neighborhood watch members. The most enthusiastic members can be assigned as block captain. Be aware of members’ strengths: if one volunteer is particularly web-savvy, put them in charge of the internet and social media arm of your program.
If you’re the one kicking off a neighborhood watch, you have a responsibility to fulfill your duties and motivate others to participate. If something happens at any point that prevents you from participating at a level appropriate for a community leader, then elect someone better suited to the task.
A neighborhood watch is hard work, and it requires a level of commitment from all involved. Don’t start strong and slack off, keep things moving and make sure volunteers remain communicative and on board. Regular meetings are a key part of an active, effective watch program.
Neighborhood safety tips
Take a look at these tips that will help make your neighborhood watch more effective in keeping your community safe:
Know what crime occurs in your neighborhood.
By gathering information on the local crime rate, and the types of crime common in your neighborhood, you and other watch members will know what to keep a lookout for.
Participate in neighborhood cleanup activities.
A clean community is a safe community. Organize neighborhood cleanup events to beautify the area, clean up vacant lots, and request that local business owners keep their storefronts in good condition.
Ensure that your members are well-educated on their responsibilities, as well as their limits.
Members of a neighborhood watch can patrol the area for suspicious behavior, but rarely should they become directly involved with an ongoing crime, which could lead to larger problems for everyone involved. Make sure they know that they ought to call the police, rather than attempt to stop a crime on their own.
If your neighborhood has a large hispanic presence, translate reading materials and signs into Spanish.
Don’t leave community members in the cold: if your neighborhood has a large hispanic population, make sure that your signs and flyers reflect this.
Encourage residents unable to take an active role in the watch to participate in any way they can.
Even if residents are too busy, or physically unable to take an active role in the program, let them know that they can help by being “window watchers”, and alerting the police if they ever witness suspicious activity outside their homes or from their vehicle. Another way they can help is enhancing their own home security with a security system, which helps to dissuade burglars from operating in the neighborhood.
Now that you have a firm understanding of why a neighborhood watch is important, and how you can take a leading role in starting one up, the rest is on you. You are about to begin one of the most challenging, yet rewarding projects in your lifetime. We wish you good luck in keeping your community safe!