Who Watches the Watchmen? The 411 on Neighborhood Watches

Who Watches the Watchmen?

 Back in the 1980s, McGruff the Crime Dog taught children and parents alike to “Take a bite out of crime.” The tough but affable, anthropomorphic bloodhound was created by the Ad Council  for the National Crime Prevention Council and used by police officers to build  crime awareness programs among American families. McGruff’s mission is essentially the same as countless proactive homeowner associations  nationwide—sniffing out criminals.  

 Value in Security

 According to Neighborhoodscout.com, there is good reason for vigilance.  Depending on where you live in New Jersey crime rates can be quite high. For  example, if you live in Jersey City, recent annual statistics found that there  were 1,829 violent crimes and 5,997 property crimes in Jersey City. With nearly  a more than a quarter million residents, the chance of becoming a victim of a  violent crime is 1 in 136 while the property crime rate is 1 in 41.  

 The severity of crime statistics varies by region but crime will occur  regardless of location which is why a homeowner association watch group is  critical. “Criminals know now that citizens have organized and are watching, that really is  a great deterrent to stopping crimes. People watching out for other people is a  great deterrent. Having a community watch group is really effective,” says Attorney James Marotta of Totowa. “Crime is not limited to the cities, it's everywhere, we have to develop  deterrence.”  

 “Just because you're in a protected condo, or not living in the city, is not a  reason to think you're safe,” says Joseph Hoban, a retired police captain from Paterson and now a security  consultant. “Neighbors should watch out for one another. That's the way it was when I grew  up, and people should still do that. To beat a dead horse, 'If you see  something, say something.' Neighbors have to watch out and should call 911 if  they see something. More often than not they are right in their suspicions.”  

 For many homeowners associations, there is a false sense of security resulting  from otherwise proactive, visible security measures such as expensive cameras  and other technologies. And whereas one might think that more crime happens at  night, in certain communities, watch groups patrol in larger numbers during the  day.  

 “Most of the crime was taking place while people were at work.” says Al Pagano, president of the Nutley Grove Neighborhood Watch in Nutley. “To combat this we enlisted neighbors that are home during the day, like retired  people and homemakers. Having them watch out really helped.” Pagano noted that the daytime watch shifts were scheduled for no more than a  couple of hours and the volunteers used their cell phones for communication.  Additionally he says that some of the volunteers would drive around the  neighborhood to keep an eye on things. “They know that if they see something they call the police, never under any  circumstances are they to take matters into their own hands.”  

 Don’t Cross the Line

 While crime is always a sensitive sticking point for community members, a  neighborhood watch organization has to be careful not to blur the lines of law  enforcement. This scenario was perhaps best underscored recently by the  highly-publicized Trayvon Martin case where George Zimmerman, a volunteer  member of his neighborhood watch in Florida, shot and killed Martin, an unarmed  teenager Zimmerman felt was behaving in a suspicious manner.  

 While the ultimate verdict in the Martin case is a matter for the courts,  perhaps an ancillary benefit of the tragedy is the call for increased  awareness, explains Carmen Caldwell, who is the executive director of the  Miami-Dade Citizens Crime Watch. Caldwell has 30-plus years of experience  helping associations build watch programs, and says that, “Interestingly enough, the Trayvon Martin case served to define what a  neighborhood watch group is all about—which is being the eyes and ears for law enforcement, not taking the law into  your own hands.”  

 Depending on location, starting a neighborhood watch group requires little, if  any, financial commitment. Pagano explains that no matter the location, a  representative, along with a participating police department, is available to  teach associations and other community members how to begin the process. “It costs the association nothing and we receive a stipend from Bergen County and  from the town.” he says. “There are strict guidelines and we have to become certified. That process can  take a while, but if you're well organized and serious it can be done rather  quickly.”  

 Hoban reiterates how critical training and education is for associations. “When you have a group organized to provide security there are liabilities,  that's why there has to be supervision and training. There also has to be a  screening process, not all volunteers are suited for the job, some can be  wannabe cops and may not follow protocol. They might want to handle a situation  themselves, this is wrong. If a volunteer sees a crime in process they have to  stay back and call the authorities. This prevents possible injury, liability  and above all follows the law.”  

 When properly executed, Pagano says a watch group is an asset. “We try to work closely with our police department. Thanks to our efforts crime  is down overall in our community. ”  

 Eyes and Ears

 Each association is different in the way they approach setting up and running a  watch group. Pagano says more often than not he is contacted by a board president who serves  as the main contact. If any organization so chooses, they can spend money on  t-shirts and decals for cars. Group watch members are normally part of a phone chain so that  there is constant communication and schedules for patrol.  

 “We have 23 districts, and a police officer for each one who is available for  questions or assistance,” says Hoban. “The key element is training people. What we find is that the more people come  together in their community, the more aware they are of their surroundings  because they get to know their neighbors on a different level. And, everyone  has a vested interest in the overall well-being.”  

 Starting the process is not that difficult, explains Hoban. “When it comes to actual training, for 15 or 20 people we can usually do it in  two hours or so,” he continues. “Generally a condominium association will tack it on to the end of their weekly  or monthly meeting, or we will set up a special Saturday session.” In cases where there are more than 40 volunteers, training may be segmented, he  adds.  

 Being the eyes and ears of the community is a benefit to law enforcement, which  is why the National Sheriffs Association launched the Neighborhood Watch  program in 1972. But a watch program is no substitute for trained law  enforcement professionals in the case of an emergency.  

 Hoban strongly cautions that volunteers should never carry firearms or try to  apprehend or follow a suspicious individual. “We do every once in a while have a community member that goes overboard. In  these cases, we ask them to no longer participate. It is difficult because we  can’t supervise the activities of all the watch groups so it becomes important for  members to also be watchful of other members to ensure they are being sensible,  and if they are not, they have to call us.”  

 While an association should confer with its insurance carrier before launching  such a program, Pagano explains that there are a handful of valuable resources  for associations looking to start a watch group. These include the National  Sheriffs Association, the Department of Justice, the National Neighborhood  Watch Institute and the National Crime Prevention Council.  

 “The police department has been a fantastic resource and they have been really  helpful,” Pagano says. “We formed as a not-for-profit. We have a governing committee and bylaws we must  follow but being a not-for-profit also allows us to raise money.” Aside from training provided by the township, to become a member you have to  pay $15 dollars to register. This fee covers the cost of a credit and  background check. Once a prospective member has had their background check  completed, if they pass, the member receives an ID card and a golf shirt. The background and credit check is essential to ensure that anyone that  shouldn't be a member doesn't become a member.  

 In the final analysis, Marotta says it is best for boards and associations to  let the local police department take the lead in organizing neighborhood watch  groups as it places the responsibility with the experts. He feels those  associations that do not have a watch group in place could benefit from the  initiative. “People that live in the community know the community and are the first to  recognize something suspicious.”  

 When it comes to the success rates of watch groups, it is often difficult to  pinpoint hard numbers, but Hoban believes that a watch group’s “presence” deters crime. “Crime will happen and there is no 9-to-5 for crime, it happens 24 hours per day.  There are times of the day when violent crimes are more prevalent. This can be mitigated through observation, that's what a neighborhood watch does  and because of it crime is down, and it's a deterrent. Criminals think twice  before coming to an area with an effective neighborhood watch.”      

 W.B. King is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor to The New Jersey  Cooperator. Associate Editor Liam P. Cusack contributed to this article.  

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  • neiborhood watc;hes should be for observation only. suspicious acti;vities should be called into law enforemdent. They are the professions.