Volunteer Security and the Rise of the Neighborhood Watch

Do neighborhood watch programs work? After 40 years, we still don't really know.
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Do neighborhood watch programs work? After 40 years, we still don't really know.
A neighborhood watch sign near Picayune, Mississippi. (PHOTO: PUBLIC DOMAIN)

A neighborhood watch sign near Picayune, Mississippi. (PHOTO: PUBLIC DOMAIN)

While the not-guilty verdict of the Trayvon Martin trial has triggered extensive discussion about crime and race in America, Florida’s Stand Your Ground law, and even youth fashion, there's barely been any discussion about a very real structural change that made incidents like these possible: the rise in volunteer security patrols—the neighborhood watch—of residential neighborhoods. They now make up a significant part of the American security structure, but do they really work? No one knows. In general, it seems some programs do, but the reasons for this, and the difference between a good and a bad neighborhood-watch program, are still unclear.

George Zimmerman was the neighborhood watch coordinator for a gated community in Sanford, Florida, called The Retreat at Twin Lakes, where Martin was temporarily staying and where the shooting took place. Zimmerman notably “wanted to join the police force—either the State Police or the county police,” and decided to “take matters into his own hands” after he called local authorities to report the suspicious (to him) presence of Martin in a neighborhood where a three-bedroom, two-bathroom, semi-detached house with “a balcony off the second floor” and a kitchen with “plenty of counter and cabinet space [that] includes matching white appliances” sells for around $100,000.

But until very recently, Trayvon Martin’s death at the hands of someone volunteering to protect the neighborhood where Martin was staying as a guest wouldn’t have been possible. Until the 1970s, most American neighborhoods had no watch.

The rise of the neighborhood patrol may have started with one specific incident. In 1964, Winston Moseley stabbed a New York City woman, Kitty Genovese, to death in her Kew Gardens neighborhood in Queens. Reportedly, she screamed audibly in the presence of almost 40 neighbors, who ignored her. As Martin Gansberg wrote in the New York Times about the incident:

For more than half an hour 38 respectable, law-abiding citizens in Queens watched a killer stalk and stab a woman in three separate attacks in Kew Gardens.

Twice their chatter and the sudden glow of their bedroom lights interrupted him and frightened him off. Each time he returned, sought her out, and stabbed her again. Not one person telephoned the police during the assault; one witness called after the woman was dead.

The man explained that he had called the police after much deliberation. He had phoned a friend in Nassau County for  advice and then he had crossed the roof of the building to the apartment of the elderly woman to get her to make the call. "I didn't want to get involved," he sheepishly told police.

While it turns out this may have been inaccurately reported—it’s not totally clear that anyone could really tell Genovese was in danger—the incident changed the way Americans viewed their own responsibilities for targeting and preventing crime.

Kitty Genovese. (PHOTO: PUBLIC DOMAIN)


An article in Life magazine at the time concluded that Americans were “becoming a callous, chickenhearted and immoral people.” This reflected a growing sense many citizens had that they were sitting ducks in hostile, crime-ridden cities. If the police couldn’t protect them, well, they would have to do it themselves.

Shortly thereafter, the residents of New York City created what appears to be the country’s first contemporary neighborhood watch programs. According to the New York Times: "In 1973, a group of 63 volunteers — 'doormen, building superintendents and business executives,' ... — were sworn in as block watchers, trained to give fast, accurate eyewitness accounts of crime. Some neighborhoods gave the watchers silver whistles or walkie-talkies. The program flourished in the 1980s, with a reported 81,000 block watchers in 1983, up from 30,000 five years earlier.

Around the same time, the National Sheriffs' Association began an effort to organize "watch groups" across the country. “Not only does the Neighborhood Watch Program allow citizens to help in the fight against crime,” the Sheriffs’ Association explains, “it is also an opportunity for communities to bond through service.”

The 2000 Crime Prevention Survey reported that 41 percent of the U.S. population lived in areas that were covered by a neighborhood watch program. “This makes Neighborhood Watch the largest single organized crime prevention activity in the nation," the report concluded. By the early 2000s, most suburban areas in America had some sort of watch in which homeowners, armed with walkie-talkies, pepper spray, and often actual guns, walked around their neighborhoods to look for suspicious behavior.

One problem: The neighborhood watch as an institution has almost always had a reputation for racial hostility.

While 33 percent of white Americans say the shooting of Trayvon Martin was unwarranted, some 87 percent of African Americans believe the shooting was unjustified. An editorial in Liberation characterized neighborhood watch programs as something that developed “as a national phenomenon and institution in the early 1970s largely as a reaction to the Black freedom movement.” This is, if not clearly the case, certainly a little hard to disprove. Neighborhood watch did come up at the same time as black militancy, and it is often associated with fear and distrust of ethnic minorities. (Last year, Eliyahu Werdesheim, a resident of an Orthodox Jewish community in Maryland and member of the area's watch, was convicted of “second-degree assault and false imprisonment” for attacking and pinning down a 15-year-old black man.)

Social scientists have attempted to measure the effectiveness of community policing programs, and some evaluations have yielded promising results. According to a 2008 literature review of 18 research projects examining the relationship between crime reduction and citizen policing programs conducted by U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services:

The strongest finding of this review relates to the mean effect size estimate produced by the meta-analysis. This indicated that, across all eligible studies combined, Neighborhood Watch was associated with a reduction in crime. It is not immediately clear why Neighborhood Watch is associated with a reduction in crime; however, it is possible that the reductions were associated with some of the essential features of the Neighborhood Watch programs as discussed earlier. Neighborhood Watch might serve to increase surveillance, reduce opportunities, and enhance informal social control. Unfortunately, this kind of information is not provided in the majority of evaluations and the precise reasons for the reduction cannot be determined.

Overall, neighborhood watch programs were associated with a 16 percent decrease in crime. But there has never been a large-scale, cross-country evaluation. The Justice Department’s paper was a review of existing studies, mostly anecdotal evaluations conducted in various cities across the country. And very few of the local studies looking at community policing are adequately controlled or randomized, so it’s hard to support any definitive takeaways about the strategy.

A 2002 study by the National Institute of Justice and the University of Maryland reached a different conclusion, for example, explaining that neighborhood watch might not provide much more than the illusion of safety:

The primary problem ... is that the areas with highest crime rates are the most reluctant to organize.... Many people refuse to host or attend community meetings, in part because they distrust their neighbors. Middle class areas, in which trust is higher, generally have little crime to begin with, making measurable effects on crime almost impossible to achieve. The program cannot even be justified on the basis of reducing middle class fear of crime and flight from the city, since no such effects have been found.

So neighborhood watch programs might be good at reducing crime—but only in neighborhoods where there isn’t much crime to begin with. Minor crime reduction in low-crime areas is worth celebrating (really, it is—no one should have to live in fear that their house or car will be broken into, or that they will be mugged during a late-night stroll), but for the neighborhoods where we need additional security and measures of protection the most your local neighborhood watch isn't going to be able to do much good.