A season into the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s clear that life as we knew it isn’t coming back any time soon. The threat of disease hangs over us, many mandatory closures are still in place, and the national unemployment rate is the highest it’s been since the Great Depression. In stressful times like these, people grow desperate for resources and angry at their lack of control over what’s happening. And, unfortunately, some of those people turn to crime—preying on those around them. Everywhere people are gathered in close proximity, even in the safest neighborhoods, unsettling things can start to happen.
Crime isn’t a problem you can solve alone. It’s a community-wide problem, and it needs a community-wide solution. But you can be the catalyst for that solution, while at the same time turning your biggest liability (the people you are surrounded by) into an asset (those people are all potential allies). How? You can organize your community into a neighborhood watch.
What A Watch Is—And What It Isn’t
For as long as humans have existed, we’ve gathered in groups for mutual protection. Hunter-gatherer tribes left sentries awake to watch for predators while the others slept. Towns in medieval England appointed watchmen from among the populace to keep the streets secure after dark. And since the 1970s, American communities have partnered with law enforcement to help reduce local crime through the National Neighborhood Watch (NNW) program.
Whether you choose to register your watch as part of that program or not, its guidelines offer a good starting point for what you can realistically and safely accomplish as a group of concerned civilians. The traditional goals of a neighborhood watch are to:
- Watch for criminal activity in a neighborhood and report it to law enforcement
- Spread safety information and promote best practices for crime prevention, home security, and emergency preparedness
- Strengthen community bonds by uniting residents around a common purpose
Many neighborhood watches organize periodic patrols of their neighborhoods or set people to watch entry points or common areas. Some advise residents on how to protect themselves and their homes and how to report suspicious activity when they see it. And some have expanded beyond crime prevention to help with other local problems like littering, idle youth, and homelessness. The more you work alongside your neighbors, the more you’ll come to know and trust each other, and the better off you all will be in any scenario requiring mutual aid.
One thing that neighborhood watches don’t do is train citizens to respond to crime. In fact, the NNW program actively discourages its participants from doing so. It’s just too dangerous, both for yourselves and for anyone you might identify (accurately or not) as a criminal. Plus, depending on your jurisdiction, intervening with force on behalf of a non-family member might fall outside the bounds of legal self-defense. If there’s any chance an encounter could turn violent, it’s best left to the professionals, who have extensive training in resolving such situations with a minimum of bloodshed. Your job as watchers is to extend their capacity by summoning them where they need to be (or improving security measures and conducting visible patrols, keeping them from needing to be there in the first place).
How to Start a Watch
1. Make a plan
The first thing you’ll want to do when starting a neighborhood watch is to see if one already exists. (Two places to check are the listings on the NNW website, https://nnw.org/find-a-watch-program, and your homeowner’s association or local government.) If so, there’s no need to reinvent the wheel. Find out who’s in charge and ask how you can help—in times like these, they’ll be glad to have new blood and fresh ideas. But if there’s no such group, read on.
Before you contact anyone about joining your watch, you’ll need to figure out two things: the scope of the project and how you’ll introduce it to prospective members. At this point, it’s too early to pick watch posts and separate out roles—besides, you might end up recruiting people who can do that better than you. But you should determine what area your watch will cover (so you know where to recruit from) and a general idea of what it will do (patrols, information sharing, classes for residents, etc.). And you should also plan how you’ll persuade your neighbors to get involved. Start with a few sentences explaining what the watch will do, why it’s needed now, and how they can get involved—something like this:
“Hi, I’m [your name], and I live [down the street]. I’m organizing a neighborhood watch to help prevent crime and keep our neighborhood safe. Would you be interested in joining us?”
If any crimes have happened in your area recently, you can mention them to express what you’re concerned about. And you should have answers ready for likely questions, such as “Is this legal?” (yes), “What will the time commitment be?” (it depends on your group’s plans, but as little as an hour or two each week), and “Who’s in charge?” (you’ll vote on that at your first meeting).
Last, if they’re interested, invite them to an interest meeting for the watch. Figure out a date, time, and place for it before you head out: soon, but not so soon that people can’t make it, and at a convenient time like a weekday evening or weekend afternoon. Outdoor locations are safest at the moment: perhaps a local park, cul-de-sac, or residential parking lot. And you can offer incentives for showing up, like snacks, drinks, or someone to watch the children while the adults talk.
2. Spread the word
Once you’ve worked out the initial details, find a few like-minded, trustworthy people to help spread the word about the watch. You can start by posting flyers for it on phone poles, bulletin boards, and local email lists or web forums. But to make sure you reach everyone you and your helpers will want to go door to door with the message described earlier. (This has the added benefit of introducing you to everyone—and the first step to securing your neighborhood is knowing who belongs there and who doesn’t.)
As you talk to people, stay calm and friendly, and keep your message brief, focused, and apolitical. Now’s not the time to bring up controversial issues like gun rights or police tactics. Whether or not your neighbors share your opinions, the fact remains that you’re the people best positioned to watch each other’s backs and offer help in a crisis, so you’ll need to set aside any differences and cooperate. And if anyone seems concerned by your plans, make it clear that the only goal of this watch is neighborhood safety—for all residents—and that you intend to operate fully within the law.
3. Host an interest meeting
With luck, you’ll have a good turnout for the watch’s interest meeting. As the instigators, you and your helpers will want to sit up front to facilitate it. However, given the state of the world right now, this may also be an online video meeting. No matter the meeting format it is important to remember that at this point all you are facilitators. You might well be the logical candidate to lead the watch, but unless and until the rest of the group appoints you to that role, you’re just a concerned neighbor with ideas to help keep the community safe. And if others have different ideas, you want to hear them too.
Present the gist of your plans for the watch (where and when it will patrol, whether/how it will coordinate with local law enforcement, what else it can do to help secure the neighborhood, etc.), and then open the floor for suggestions. You might be surprised who speaks up: it could be the old lady who’s always out pruning her bushes (that she deliberately planted in a defensive arrangement), or an intrepid teenager who knows all the hidden ways in and out of the neighborhood, or an immigrant family that survived civil unrest in their old country and has lessons to share. Hear them all out and note down any good ideas (and who might be able to implement them).
Once the group has agreed on a general plan for the watch, it’s time to choose the leaders who will execute it. You’ll want at least one, to direct activities and coordinate with law enforcement on the group’s behalf. You might also want to designate more roles, like second-in-command, patrol scheduler, record-keeper, or event coordinator, all of whom can work with the leader to develop your final plans. The best candidates for leader will have law enforcement or military experience (the more they know about security and crime prevention, the better), good interpersonal and organizational skills, the respect and trust of most people in the neighborhood, and the ability to delegate.
Once the leader is appointed, all that remains is to wrap up and send everyone home—with homework! There’s a lot each member can do while the leadership team finalizes the watch plans. First, and most importantly, they can figure out and tell the leaders how much time they can devote to the watch and when that time will be (days, nights, weekdays, weekends, etc.). Second, they can see if they have any gear the watch could use, like surveillance or trail cameras, flashlights, alarm devices, walkie-talkies (useful if the phone system goes down), or anything else the leaders might request. And third, they can evaluate the security of their own homes and habits and see what they can do to harden them up, like installing or repairing outdoor lights, checking the locks on ground-floor windows, remembering to keep all doors locked (including garage and basement doors), and storing valuable items indoors and out of sight. You can even send them home with a checklist, like the ones found in this guide: https://www.nnw.org/sites/default/files/Partnership%20for%20a%20Safer%20Community.pdf. And, of course, let them all know the date of the next meeting and who to contact with questions in the meantime.
4. Finalize the plan
You and your fellow watch leaders will also have a lot to do between the interest meeting and when you officially launch the watch. First, you’ll have to survey the area to determine where and when to deploy your watchers. Which parts of the neighborhood see the most traffic (vehicular or otherwise)? How do people enter and exit the area? Roads are the obvious paths, but pedestrian routes like sidewalks, trails, cut-throughs, and even gaps between houses should also be on your radar. What are the normal patterns of activity (when are the sidewalks busy vs. empty, when are most houses occupied, who gets up early, who stays out late, etc.)? You have two goals here: to establish a baseline for “normal” that you can compare with later events, and to figure out when your neighborhood is most vulnerable to crime (and thus when your watch is most needed). For example, most burglaries happen during the day when houses tend to be vacant. Be sure to incorporate any useful information from the interest meeting into these plans.
Second, collect your watch members’ responses about their availability and equipment, and use them to make a preliminary schedule for the watch. Depending on your plans, you might have a variety of roles, like patroller, sentry, dispatcher/central contact person, or event support. You may also want to appoint block or shift captains to supervise normal watch operations in their respective locations or times of day (these should be responsible, committed people willing to provide training and lead small groups). Also, if you can, identify anyone among your members with emergency medical training and arrange for at least one of them to be “on-call” whenever the watch is operating, to provide care if needed until an ambulance shows up (which might take longer than usual these days). And make sure everyone has everything they need to carry out their roles; if not, the watch may need to buy new gear or arrange for it to be shared among the group.
Third, work out a chain of command and communication procedures for the watch. You’ll probably want to designate dispatchers, either watch leaders or other trustworthy group members, to pass information between watchers, leaders, and neighborhood residents as needed. These dispatchers should have contact information for as many people in the neighborhood as possible, even non-participants, in case they need to send out urgent warnings (for example, if a house is on fire or an assault is taking place). Text messages and email are the most universal means to contact people, and there are several mass-text and email-blast programs that can help you reach many people at once. You could also set up a Slack workspace, Facebook group, or Twitter account if those platforms are popular in your neighborhood. And if you’re concerned about phone or internet service going out, you could set up a radio broadcast system or arrange a contact tree (in which the dispatcher passes a message in-person to a couple of other households, who then each pass the message to a couple more households, and so on until everyone has been notified). Whatever systems you set up, be sure to test them before you need them—you don’t want to find out during an emergency that half your messages don’t reach their intended recipients.
And fourth, if you choose to do so, register your new group with the NNW program (for instructions, see https://www.nnw.org/node/10) and reach out to your local law enforcement to let them know you’re operating. Invite them to send a representative to your launch meeting—they can review your plans, help train members, and offer advice on how to run the watch group and how you can best support them.
5. Launch your group
By the day of the launch meeting, you should have most of the logistics figured out. All that’s left will be to assign roles to your watch members, train them in their tasks, and settle any last-minute scheduling conflicts. If you have several different roles, you could start this meeting with the information everyone will need to know, then separate out by role for more specific instructions.
At a minimum, each watch member should know who’s in charge of the watch as a whole, who’s leading their particular block/shift/team, and who to contact in the event of:
- Emergencies (a crime is being committed, people are in danger, or someone is hurt): 911, then the watch leader or dispatcher
- Suspicious activity but no urgent threat: your local police department’s non-emergency number, then the watch leader or dispatcher
- Questions, comments, or routine status reports: their team leader, the dispatcher, or another designated person
Patrollers and sentries should know where and when they’ll be keeping watch, what to look for, and what to do when they see it. Review with them some common suspicious behaviors and normal activities, such as the following:
- Someone peering into cars or house windows
- A car driving loops around the neighborhood or idling in front of a house without anyone getting out or coming in
- Someone carrying a weapon
- A stranger poking around the foundations or fumbling with the locks of someone’s house
- Two people showing up in separate vehicles, exchanging packages, and quickly departing
- Open doors, broken windows, or any other signs of tampering or forced entry
Probably not suspicious:
- Joggers (if they’re moving in a straight line and largely ignoring their surroundings, they’re most likely just out for exercise)
- Someone poking around the foundations or fumbling with the locks of their own house (with the caveat that domestic violence is one crime in particular that tends to increase during an economic downturn. If Mrs. Neighbor has to kick out Mr. Neighbor and change the locks on him, she should absolutely notify a trusted figure on the watch)
- Yard or maintenance crews (although if the homeowner is absent and anything about the crew seems off, you might want to call the homeowner to make sure the crew is supposed to be there)
Encourage watchers to remain alert while on patrol and avoid listening to music, using their phones, or getting drawn into long conversations. And when they do see suspicious activity, they should remain calm, get themselves and anyone else present to a safe location, and report what they saw in as much detail as possible. (For example, “Around five minutes ago, I saw three men jump over the fence of 703 Maple Avenue and run off toward Main Street. One was carrying a half-full black trash bag, and another held what appeared to be a handgun.”) Also have them include any identifying details they remember about the people or vehicles involved (for people: sex, age, height, weight, skin color, hair color and style, scars or tattoos, and clothing; for vehicles: make, model, color, license plate number and state, and any distinctive decals, dents, or bumper stickers). For more information, see chapter 6 of the NNW manual (available at https://www.nnw.org/sites/default/files/documents/0_NW_Manual_1210.pdf).
By the end of this meeting, everyone should understand their role in the watch and feel comfortable performing it. Send them home with any equipment they’ll need, the date and time of the next watch meeting, and a schedule to keep them going until then.
6. Watch, wait and iterate
With luck, all the effort you put into planning your watch will pay off, and your first few weeks in operation will go smoothly. No plans are perfect, though, so you’ll likely learn a lot about what works and what doesn’t pretty fast. The leadership team should keep track of any problems or confusion and review them before the next meeting to see if any watch procedures need to change.
As your watch continues, make sure to hold regular meetings (at least once a month) to review your procedures, discuss any incidents, collect feedback from the participants, and maintain interest in the program. Be sure to thank watch members for the time they volunteer and recognize any exceptional efforts. As long as they feel their work matters and is appreciated, they’ll be glad to keep it up.
Organizing a neighborhood watch group and keeping it going will take a lot of time and effort. But in return, you’ll have the satisfaction of knowing that you’re doing all you can to keep your household safe and secure in these uncertain times. And you might just sleep easier knowing that your neighbors have your back.