In 1972 the National Sheriffs’ Association created the National Neighborhood Watch program and its mascot, Boris the Burglar, in an effort to assist neighborhood residents and law enforcement after a nationwide upsurge in crime. Today Neighborhood Watch is housed within the National Sheriffs’ Association and remains dedicated to fostering a working relationship between neighborhood residents and local law enforcement in order to deter crime and apprehend criminal offenders. Neighborhood Watch remains the largest, most prominent, community-based crime prevention program in the nation.
A Neighborhood Watch program consists of community crime prevention efforts involving local residents organizing and sharing information about crime and other nefarious activity in their immediate area. The essence of Neighborhood Watch is crime prevention through education and use of common sense. In cooperation with local law enforcement, citizens are taught how to properly identify and report suspicious activity or criminal offending in their neighborhoods. Watch groups primarily focus on observation and awareness as the main crime prevention strategies. These tactics can be as simple as having neighborhood residents keep vigilance on neighbors’ property to as complex as organizing active citizen patrol groups.
A second purpose of Neighborhood Watch is the building of community bonds as neighbors come together to work toward a common goal. Numerous studies have shown that areas characterized by social disorganization often suffer from increased crime, decay, and disorder. The intention of Neighborhood Watch is to strengthen avenues of informal social control in efforts to diminish crime and disorder.
Neighborhood Watch groups are typically built around a block or neighborhood and are organized through assistance with local law enforcement. Volunteer citizens meet with law enforcement officers to receive training in techniques of observing and reporting suspicious or criminal activity. A study conducted in 1988 observed that most Neighborhood Watch groups were located in residential areas consisting predominantly of single-family homes, few or no commercial establishments, with citizens residing at their current address for more than five years.
Relying on the theoretical underpinnings of situational crime prevention, environmental design, and defensible space, Neighborhood Watch attempts to decrease crime and disorder through target hardening, focusing on altering many of the social conditions that contribute to crime while empowering residents to protect themselves. The primary goal of Neighborhood Watch is to reduce or prevent burglaries in a specific area.
Many studies have been conducted regarding the efficacy of Neighborhood Watch on crime prevention. One study determined that Neighborhood Watch signs had, at times, the unintended effect of being associated with increases in fear of crime and victimization in middle-class areas. However, the same study discovered that in higher-income areas the Neighborhood Watch signs were associated with lower levels of crime.
A 2008 study conducted by the National Crime Prevention Council maintained that 52.78 percent of Neighborhood Watch programs had resulted in crime reductions of at least 9 percent or more. In addition, a meta-analysis conducted by the National Crime Prevention Council determined that Neighborhood Watch was associated with a reduction in crime of approximately 16 percent, which was considered a small but favorable effect.
However, other studies have determined that the effects of Neighborhood Watch are spurious or contradictory. From theoretical limitations of the program to concerns from citizens that the crime prevention program will result in intrusive behavior on the part of neighbors, some studies have found limited positive effects on reductions in crime or on the program’s ability to create connections between neighbors and law enforcement.
In 2005 Neighborhood Watch was formally introduced on Native American reservations. Euphemistically termed RezWatch, Neighborhood Watch programs on tribal lands were started in efforts to combat drug manufacturing and distribution as well as alcohol abuse by residents and outsiders. Some tribes have implemented anonymous tip lines to enable residents to inform tribal police about criminal offending, while others have instituted brochures and flyers to raise awareness about the watch programs and compel citizens to report instances of crime, violence, or disorder.
In 2002, USAonWatch.org, Neighborhood Watch’s Web presence, was launched through partnerships between the National Sheriffs’ Association, USA Freedom Corps, Citizen Corps, and the U.S. Department of Justice. The Web site is a treasure trove of valuable information for citizens on the creation of Neighborhood Watch groups, the history of the crime prevention initiative, and links to partnering agencies within the greater law enforcement community.
Current partnering agencies with Neighborhood Watch include the Bureau of Justice Assistance, Office of Justice Programs, Citizen Corps, Community Emergency Response Team, Fire Corps, Medical Reserve Corps, Volunteers in Police Service, and Community Oriented Policing Services. Partnerships with collaborating agencies are intended to increase the efficacy of basic Neighborhood Watch programs in maintaining safety throughout the nation. In 2002, the National Sheriffs’ Association, in partnership with the U.S. Department of Justice, expanded Neighborhood Watch to incorporate terrorism awareness, emergency preparedness, and hazards training into the mission.
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- McConville, Mike, and Dan Shepherd. Watching Police, Watching Communities. New York: Taylor & Francis, 1992.
- National Crime Prevention Council. “Does Neighborhood Watch Reduce Crime?” Research Brief (July 10, 2008).
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(Accessed September 2013).
- National Sheriffs’ Association. “Watch Out, Help Out, Your Community: Neighborhood Watch
Resources for Native American Communities.” Washington, DC: Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2005.
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Stationary Office, 1988.
- Rosenbaum, Dennis. “The Theory and Research Behind Neighborhood Watch: Is It a Sound Fear and Crime Reduction Strategy?” Crime and Delinquency, v.33/1 (1987).
- Schultz, Wesley and Jennifer Tabanico. “A Social Norms Approach to Community Based Crime Prevention: Implicit and Explicit Messages on Neighborhood Watch Signs.” Final Grant Report Award Number 2005-IJ-CX-0016. Rockville, MD: National Institute of Justice, 2005.
- Stegenga, Priscilla. “Classic Crime Prevention: Neighborhood Watch.” Sheriff, v.52/5 (2000).
- Woodson, Robbi. “Celebrating the Success of 40 Years of Neighborhood Watch.” Sheriff (September/October 2012).
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