by Tarah Hodgkinson
When you ask people to provide an example of crime prevention, the first program they mention is Neighbourhood Watch (or Block Watch). This is not surprising considering that for 45 years it has been implemented extensively. Police departments offer toolkits for residents and many neighbourhoods sport signs that say “Block Watch Community – All suspicious behaviours will be reported to the police.”
Neighbourhood Watch originated in Seattle in 1972 when the Law and Justice Planning Office conducted a survey and found that residents were most concerned about burglary. They created a program to:
- Train residents in target hardening techniques
- Encourage willing residents to share information about their schedules
- Create a network of residents to watch after each other's houses, and
- Report suspicious behaviour to each other and the local police.
The program produced massive declines in burglary rates (48-61%). Thus, Neighbourhood Watch was deemed an exemplary project and, backed by the National Crime Prevention Council and most police departments, it took off across North America.
Some positive results continue today. For example, British research shows it cuts burglary in UK neighbourhoods by 16% to 26%.
However, Neighbourhood Watch has been subject to considerable criticism. Research demonstrated that expansions of the program in different cities produce positive results only in middle-class neighbourhoods that already had strong social cohesion. Other studies found that it tended to have negative consequences, including increasing fear of crime.
WHAT WENT WRONG?
So what happened to this exemplary project?
Current versions of Neighbourhood Watch have missed the mark in addressing crime problems and mobilizing residents to address them. Some accounts claim they do not encourage neighbours to organize around crime issues that they care about.
Instead, today’s programs are a shadow of what they once were; they play lip service to a once well-designed program by posting signs and handing out flyers. In most case, residents call their local police service to install signs and give residents information on how to secure their homes or notice suspicious behaviour. Unfortunately, they miss the point regarding what contributed to the success of the original program – people!
THE MISSING INGREDIENT
This is in direct opposition to the action research methodology that underpins SafeGrowth - to address relevant crime issues with local residents, not to or for them. When people and context are removed from the equation, all we are left with is a feel-good program.
We don’t need signs, flyers and more door locks. We need engaged neighbourhoods where police and residents work together on crime issues that matter most and then co-create lasting solutions. That is how we move forward.