Who Watches Neighborhood Watch Programs?


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When you see a Neighborhood Watch sign, what does it actually mean? Chris Saulit/Getty Images

Boris the Burglar may not be a household name, but his face has been plastered across cities, towns and suburbs throughout the U.S. since the early 1970s. And if you've ever wandered around a neighborhood marked with orange-and-white signs bearing the image of a man dressed like a villain out of a 1950s noir film, then you've seen him too. These signs are often labeled with the words "NEIGHBORHOOD WATCH."

But just what, exactly, are neighborhood watch programs? Following an increase in crime in the late 1960s, the National Neighborhood Watch Program was established in 1972 under the umbrella of the National Sheriffs' Association (NSA), according to the National Neighborhood Watch's website. The organization established guidelines so that local neighborhood watch groups could register with the National Neighborhood Watch and properly set up programs in communities across America.

Although neighborhood watch programs originally started in order to respond more effectively to burglaries, the concept of neighborhood watch has evolved over time so that local residents serve as the 'eyes and ears' of law enforcement by keeping a watch out for suspicious behavior in their neighborhood and reporting potential criminal activity to police.

"The general concept was that the police cannot be everywhere. So if you can keep an eye on your neighborhood and report what you see to the police and report to your neighbors, then it becomes beneficial to law enforcement," says John Thompson, a retired law enforcement officer and the former Deputy Executive Director of the National Sheriffs' Association.

According to the National Neighborhood Watch's website, the concept of neighborhood watch stems from the Chicago School of social disorganization theory, which links high crime to specific neighborhoods that have weak social structures and little community control. Neighborhood watch groups theoretically step up to provide that community control. However, the concept of ordinary citizens serving as 'eyes and ears' of the police has also been criticized by advocacy groups for failing to create meaningful trust between neighbors.

The mandate of the National Neighborhood Watch shifted slightly in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, when the NSA received a grant from the Department of Justice to rebrand the organization as USAonWatch in order for residents to share information regarding homeland security concerns. But when that grant ran out, National Neighborhood Watch returned to its roots of dealing with community-specific crime, Thompson says.

Do Neighborhood Watch Programs Prevent Crime?

It's not entirely uncommon to see reports in local newspapers of neighborhood watch groups that have helped police apprehend suspects, as in the case of this woman who was believed to have stolen an RV in Franklin County, Missouri. But could neighborhood watch groups be helpful in not only reporting and solving crime, but also preventing it from happening? A paper published in 2006 found that 15 out of 18 studies on neighborhood watch groups showed some evidence that neighborhood watch groups reduce crime. Proponents of neighborhood watch also argue that their groups prevent crime. The first line of deterrence starts with the classic neighborhood watch signs.

"You're walking through the neighborhood, and ... you get to a gate, and it's got a big sign that says 'beware of dog.' Are you going to go into the gate? I wouldn't," says Thompson. "So, yes, the signs are a deterrent — bottom line. If I was going to break into a house, why would I break into a house in a community where I know people are watching?"

How Are Groups Organized?

So how exactly are neighborhood watch groups organized? Traditionally, neighborhood watch groups would recruit members and schedule meetings in conjunction with local law enforcement to discuss community concerns. A well-structured group might have a law enforcement liaison, a group coordinator and block captains to supervise the program on each neighborhood block. Some might even conduct neighborhood patrols and hand out information on crime prevention to their neighbors. Some communities organize larger oversight bodies beyond individual neighborhoods, such as the Citizens' Crime Watch of Miami-Dade County. You can find more information on organizing neighborhood watch groups in the official training manual.

But in reality, the organization of each neighborhood watch group depends entirely on the needs and expectations of the specific community. Some groups might be focused more on community beautification efforts like removing graffiti, whereas others might be concerned with more serious concerns like drug-related violence or homelessness. Others might be concerned with organizing responses to natural disasters.

"I don't have any personal recommendations, because I don't think there is a one-size fits all [solution]. In my neighborhood, what we need to do may be totally different [than] what you do in your neighborhood," says Thompson. "So it can be from something as simple as people sharing [information] to a fully blown organization."

Although the National Neighborhood Watch organization offers training and resources, they don't have the means to provide oversight of each of the thousands of registered groups — not to mention the countless, loosely organized crime watch groups that aren't registered with the organization, which may be operating under their own informal principles. This lack of oversight has spurred concerns over the years that some residents are taking the law into their own hands through vigilante methods, instead of allowing trained law enforcement officials to handle crime situations, as the National Neighborhood Watch advises.

"Let me just say that neighborhood watch pops up all over the place. It doesn't mean they follow our guidelines and the things we tell them they should do," says Thompson. "Now, a lot of people just say, oh, we're a neighborhood watch. And they turn into a vigilante group. Well you can't control that. But that's not sanctioned by anybody. It's not recommended."

The most infamous example of such vigilantism is the case of George Zimmerman, the man who shot and killed Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teenager, in Sanford, Florida in 2012. Zimmerman was reportedly a volunteer in a neighborhood watch group, though Thompson maintains that Zimmerman's group was not registered with the National Neighborhood Watch through the NSA.

Starting Your Own Group

According to the National Neighborhood Watch, there are more than 28,000 neighborhood watch groups currently registered through their website, though not all of them may be active. But increasingly, neighborhood watch groups are shifting to the digital sphere in the form of informal group texts, Facebook pages, as well as social networking platforms like Nextdoor. Corporations like Ring — a home security system owned by Amazon — are also partnering with law enforcement and neighborhood watch groups to solve crime. Are these online methods degrading the purpose of formal neighborhood watch groups? Not really, says Thompson. It's just the reality of crime prevention in the age of social media.

"I don't think fewer people are involved [in neighborhood watch]." I think it's evolved and it's changing," says Thompson. "But people are still participating. It's just not formalized."

So what should you do if you're interested in starting your own neighborhood watch group? Thompson says the first thing you should do is head to the National Neighborhood Watch website and register your group. You'll also get access to resources to assist you in forming your own group, like this training manual. You can also locate existing groups in your area.

And neighborhood watch programs aren't just a thing in the U.S. They're in pockets across the globe, from the U.K. to Australia to the Netherlands. So wherever you live, you might find a neighborhood watch group in your own community.