People can reduce crime in their neighborhoods by being aware of what is going on around them. In stable communities with many long-term residents, people tend to keep an eye out for each other. This form of law enforcement has been shown to work because citizens are embedded with a sense of law and order, essentially creating a social institution of crime protection. Criminology experts believe that community crime watch programs are a way to get people involved in their neighborhoods in order to strengthen community ties and to help prevent and deter crime.
Residents volunteer to watch out for anything suspicious happening in their neighborhoods. They may conduct patrols on foot or in cars. Sometimes they wear uniforms. If residents spot a crime in progress, they are not authorized to take any direct action against the criminals. Instead, they report the suspicious activity to the local police.
The National Sheriffs’ Organization created the National Watch Program in 1972 to help citizen groups and law enforcement start and maintain community crime watch programs. After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the focus of the programs expanded to include terrorism awareness, disaster preparation and emergency response.
In 2008, the United States Department of Justice published a comprehensive study of the effectiveness of neighborhood watch programs. The DOJ researchers evaluated 43 previous studies conducted in the U.S. and the U.K. and concluded that neighborhood watch programs were effective in reducing crime.
Although the DOJ meta-analysis found that community crime watches were effective, it was not able to pinpoint the reason why. “Unfortunately,” the report said, “this kind of information is not provided in the majority of evaluations and the precise reasons for the reduction cannot be determined.”
The researchers did, however, discuss various ways that crime watches might reduce crime. Crime watches could have a deterrent effect on crime because criminals would be afraid of getting caught, knowing they were more likely to be seen. Also, some community crime watch groups create signs of occupancy in houses when residents are away, which reduces the chances of break-ins. Finally, to the extent that crime watches result in more arrests, there can be a long-term effect on the crime rate because more criminals would be jailed and taken off the streets.
Community crime watch programs have been around a long time. Common sense suggests that the programs are useful for helping to reduce crime because the police cannot be everywhere and see everything. The DOJ study confirms that the programs are effective. The programs are a cost-effective way to fight crime. They also benefit communities in other ways. Neighbors who might not have known each other without the crime watch program get to work together and form strong ties. Taking responsibility for the well-being of the community also fosters a sense of neighborhood pride and cohesion.