Organizing a neighborhood watch can bring you closer to neighbors, improve community safety and potentially boost home values.
When your neighbors tell you a bike was stolen from their garage or an elderly woman had her purse snatched, you just shake your head. After all, crime can happen anywhere. But you can help reduce those incidents and better get to know your neighbors by organizing a neighborhood watch. In the process, you could help raise property values and lower insurance premiums for the entire neighborhood.
Be ready to spend some time recruiting people to join and encouraging them stay active. So before jumping in, consider the particulars.
Recruit your crime fighters
Property crimes—burglary, vandalism, and auto theft—make up more than 75% of criminal behavior in the U.S., according to the U.S. Department of Justice. To help combat these incidents, law enforcement supports neighborhood or block watches, which the National Sheriffs’ Association defines as an organized group of residents united against crime in their area.
As the group’s president or “captain,” you’ll be responsible for organizing meetings at least twice a year, ensuring that members are participating, and enlisting local law enforcement support. If your neighbors are already chummy, forming a group could simply take a few calls and setting up a meeting with law enforcement.
Otherwise expect to canvas residents, schools, churches, and businesses. Anticipate logging at least 10 hours a week for a month or more to get your group off the ground and keep it running, according to USAonWatch.org, run by the NSA, which promotes watch groups.
There’s no formal training required to join. Simply ask your neighbors to keep an eye on the neighborhood. Before you recruit, arm yourself with current crime statistics, such as from CrimeReports.com. (Many local law enforcement agencies also maintain online crime maps that citizens can monitor.) That way, if your neighborhood has experienced incidents while others nearby are relatively crime free, you can ask prospective watchers where they think buyers will want to live.
Insurance rates, property values may benefit
Although there are no statistics correlating neighborhood watch groups and property values, “we hear from law enforcement that when they help neighborhood watches get organized and active, they see a drop-off in criminal activity in that area,” says Robbie Woodson, a spokesperson for USAonWatch.org. And many police and neighborhood watch veterans believe that when a watch group is active, it can make a neighborhood more desirable, which in turn could raise property values. A variety of economics studies over the years have shown a negative relationship between crime and property values, according to a 2007 report in Entrepreneur magazine.
Property insurance premiums are based in part on crime rates in a given area. “Insurance companies base their premiums on risk. If an active neighborhood watch group has an impact on lowering crimes and, therefore, claims, insurers will often adjust their premiums,” says Mike Barry, vice president of media relations for the Insurance Information Institute.
Recruits might also be interested to know that neighborhood watches aren’t just about stopping crime. A network of watchers can help find lost pets and children and call in potential hazards like leaking water mains and overgrown trees.
What to expect at a watch meeting
Law enforcement will usually attend the first meeting to point out the latest incidents in the area and let you know what type of crime to be alert for. You’ll also be trained to use the weapons of choice—eyes, ears, and a phone—for the competent neighbor watcher. “Nothing is more hazardous to a criminal than a witness,” says Ted Cimino, a neighborhood watch captain in Surprise, Ariz.
The agenda for subsequent meetings can include a report on neighborhood watch activities and a briefing by police about area crime. They’re also a time to air concerns. A Manassas, Va., watch group confronted police about a facility in their neighborhood that housed paroled sex offenders. “The police brought in their parole officer to show us how closely these people were being monitored, which put our minds at ease,” says Cindy Brookshire, a neighborhood watch captain in the area.
Be alert for common crimes
Police will likely suggest you watch for common crimes, such as auto theft and vandalism. Other common criminal activities, according to USAonWatch.org:
Burglary. Since they’re not viewable from the street, backyard windows and doors are vulnerable to break-ins. “If a stranger is lurking around a house, it’s worth a call to the police,” says Ben Kinlow, a crime prevention coordinator for the Seattle Police Department.
If you’re in doubt about whether to call the police—after all, the person could be relative who’s lost his key, Kinlow says it’s better to call: “Police would much rather do a quick check on the property than come back later to find a burglary has occurred.”
Loitering. Youths routinely hanging out on corners might be gang members. Regularly walking in groups of two or more in the evening or whenever loiterers hang out can be big deterrence. However, use discretion, police say. If a problem area is dark and you don’t feel completely safe, call the police to disperse the loiterers.
Scams. Most door-to-door salespeople are legitimate. But there are plenty of swindlers who prey on homeowners promising cheap driveway repairs or paint jobs, but give little in return for your money. A phone tree, in which the first person who sees a possible problem calls the police, then each member calls one or two other neighbors to alert them to a situation, can be effective against a scammer on the prowl—as long as everyone’s phone and contact information are regularly updated.
Organize your citizen network
A good watch captain maintains the membership’s contact information in a database, makes phone tree assignments, and sets up a method of communication, such as through Google Groups. NeighborhoodLink.com provides free template websites for watch groups.
The National Neighborhood Watch Institute sells starter kits, including deterrent decals and signs, handbooks, and work sheets starting at $44.95. There’s a cost break for buying kits in bulk. Sometimes local law enforcement will supply them, or you could ask the membership to contribute.
Law enforcement may organize and support meetings and parties, say watch organizers like Cimino. However, with many cities reducing their budgets, there may be times when you’ll need to contact membership about contributing to a block party or buying supplies. Alternatively, contact local businesses to see if they’ll donate, since they, too, benefit from your watch’s work.
Over time, participation in a watch group can fade. That’s why it’s smart to organize regular neighborhood events. Law enforcement is usually willing to help by sponsoring block parties. In addition, some groups sponsor neighborhood yard sales or community clean-ups; others work out deals with local businesses, which agree to offer discounts to card-carrying neighborhood watch members.
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