Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Neighbourhood Watch? Perhaps not!

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.

The ubiquitous Neighbourhood Watch sign. Are residents doing anything?

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.


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!


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.

3 Replies so far - Add your comment

Sue Ramsay said...

I'm pleased to report that Neighbourhood Support (as the programme is known in New Zealand) hasn't suffered the same fate as in North America. While supported by Police and local authorities, Neighbourhood Support is an independent not for profit that actively engages residents in building neighbourhood connections. Some groups, such as in Riccarton West, Christchurch, have well attended monthly meetings with guest speakers on a range of topics and shared suppers. Neighbourhood Support has developed into a key player in neighbourhood disaster preparedness following the 2011 earthquakes. Uptake is high is less advantages neighbourhoods.

Road Less Traveled said...

What are other ideas for block watches then? My city uses CDBG dollars for organizers to create block watches and I'd like to offer other solutions.

Mateja Mihinjac said...


I'd like to offer a comment here saying that the main issue with neighborhood or block watches schemes is that they are delivered from the outside of the community. This often results in the residents lacking ownership or relying too much on the police to address the issues. When these schemes offer a strong foundation for the residents to connect and build cohesion (while cooperating closely with the police and other services) they have a potential for a positive and sustainable effect. This way we're also focusing on building the capacity of the residents to focus on prosocial behaviours while making their space "defensible"