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Neighborhood watch programs are designed to help residents keep an eye out for each other. But how effectively do they combat crime? We explore what makes for strong community policing in neighborhoods across our region.
- Samantha Nolan At-Large Member,Chief's Citizen Advisory Council, Neighborhood Watch Trainer
- Stephen Mastrofski University Professor,Department of Criminology, Law and Society and Director of the Center for Justice Leadership and Management at George Mason University
MR. KOJO NNAMDIWhen it comes to crime in the D.C. area, there are some bright spots and there is also some bad news. While violent crime has declined along with gun crimes, The Washington Post recently reported a large increase in both burglaries and thefts. Incidents of crime on Metrorail and buses have also continued to rise. One popular way to fight back, you might consider forming a neighborhood watch. The approach is popular with police who can use block captains to gain information, and ordinary citizens can gain a sense community and safety. So what can a neighborhood watch do for you and what are its limitations?
MR. KOJO NNAMDIJoining us to talk about that is Stephen Mastrofski. He is a professor in the Department of Criminology, Law and Society and director of the Center for Justice Leadership and Management at George Mason University. He joins us by telephone from Pennsylvania. Stephen Mastrofski, thank you for joining us.
PROF. STEPHEN MASTROFSKIWell, thank you, Kojo. I'm pleased to be invited to join you.
NNAMDIJoining us in studio is Samantha Nolan. She has trained over 1,000 neighborhood watch block captains. She's an at-large member of the D.C. Police Chief's Citizen Advisory Council. Samantha Nolan, thank you for joining us.
MS. SAMANTHA NOLANThank you so much for inviting me.
NNAMDIWhat prompted you to get involved with neighborhood watch programs?
NOLANI became involved in 2000 after a woman in our neighborhood was robbed after getting off of a Metro bus in the neighborhood. She was knocked to the ground. Her laptop was taken. And another woman named Mary Rouse (sp?) had put together 25 individuals who were interested in starting neighborhood watch, and she asked me if I would lead the program.
NNAMDIWhat neighborhood do you live in?
NOLANChevy Chase, D.C.
NNAMDIStephen Mastrofski, what do we know, from a criminology standpoint, about how effectively neighborhood watch programs fight crime?
MASTROFSKIWell, Kojo, like a lot of things in social science research, the evidence is rather mixed. On the one hand, the evidence on whether neighborhood watch and groups like that actually bring crime down, the evidence tends to be that there is no effect. It's mixed, but most of the studies show no effect. But when you look at how citizens feel, for example, if they have reduced fear or if they feel that the problems in their neighborhood have gone down, the results are more positive. There's a tendency for a neighborhood watch and programs like that to produce a lot stronger, positive feeling among the residents of those neighborhoods and communities.
NNAMDILet's see how our listeners feel. Are you involved with a neighborhood watch? How does it benefit your community? What have been the challenges you faced? Call us at 800-433-8850 or send us an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Samantha Nolan, after you first got involved, tell us a little bit about your experience after that and how it led to you training so many neighborhood watch block captains.
NOLANWell, for the first five years of having the program in Chevy Chase, we noticed every year that the crime in the neighborhood dropped year-to-date statistics. We added about 25 new block captains or more every year. Within five years, we had 240 block captains for 309 blocks, so that was excellent coverage for our community and we noticed that our crime significantly dropped. Not only that, we were involved in many arrests through neighborhood watch block captains. We distributed information.
NOLANIn one instance where we were having armed robberies and they were being committed by four individuals driving around in a white van, we let all of our block captains know that and through the block captain system, they sent that information out to the blocks. And one evening, one of our block captains was driving home and she noticed the white van following her. She was able to call 911, give a description and the operator told her to keep driving, not to go to her house and to keep an eye on the van, which she did.
NOLANShe called back again and said that there were now two vans following her and she was very nervous because the guys in the first van were all dressed in black and wearing masks, and she was afraid that, you know, they were gonna overtake her and she was gonna be in trouble. And the operator at that time told her to pull over at the side of the road, keep the doors locked. But the second van had the vice patrols in it and that as soon as she pulled over, the four guys got out of the van and approached her car, and the vice operators were -- vice officers were able to make an arrest. So just by sending out information, we were able to get four armed robbers off the street.
NNAMDIHow does one become a block captain and what is a block captain's responsibility? What kind of training do you give to a block captain?
NOLANI have a one-hour training that I give. During the training, I show actual crime scenes and explain what it was about the scene that contributed to the crime. It is our belief that more than 80 percent of crimes are preventable just through education and that we can actually decrease crime by educating the population. So each block captain takes the training and then goes back to the block and trains the people on that one block. They create a block list with the addresses, email addresses, phone numbers and names of everybody on the street and then gives each member on the street a copy of the list.
NOLANSo if they see anything, for instance, if I saw a person climbing on a ladder on the house across the street and breaking a window on the second storey, I could call my neighbor and say, are you having work done on your house? And if she said no, I would then call 911 with the information that there was a possible burglary in progress.
NNAMDIStephen Mastrofski, from what you can tell about places which have been studies, there are what criminologists call co-productive activities, things that invigorate the relationships between a neighborhood and its police. What are these co-productive activities and how do they help?
MASTROFSKIWell, many of the co-productive activities that Samantha has described, many of those activities are co-productive and that the police are working with members of the community who provide essential information to the police that -- and they can mobilize to be more effective against crime. But that's not the only thing that can be done. In some communities, neighborhood groups actually go out and do things like improve the physical nature of a neighborhood where there might be an area that, say, drug dealers hang out because it's a rundown. They will actually go in and clean it up or get the owner to tear it down so that the property doesn't avail itself to illicit uses.
MASTROFSKIThere are other things besides co-productive activities that community groups also get involved in. Chicago is a place where this has been very much the case, where they actually get more involved in the governance of the police themselves, that is they meet with the police regularly at monthly meetings and indicate what their priorities are. What are the crimes and disorders in the neighborhood that actually are their highest priority? And oftentimes, what bothers neighborhood residents most is not the highest priority for a police officer. They might be more interested in felonies whereas what's bothering the neighborhood would be less serious crimes, but still very onerous for the quality of life.
MASTROFSKIIn addition to that, they give officers feedback on how well the police are doing, basically where the shoe is pinching. And so it can be a more comprehensive level of involvement in some communities.
NNAMDISamantha Nolan, is that essentially what you do as a member of the D.C. Police Chief Citizen Advisory Council?
NOLANI do it as a member of our neighborhood watch on a monthly basis. In the District, we are divided into seven police districts and each police district has what are called PSAs, police service areas, and each police service area has one lieutenant at least and no fewer than 21 officers. Those officers learn the neighborhood that they're assigned to and they become partners with the community in that neighborhood. And once a month, each PSA meets the lieutenant and the stakeholders, the block captains, the directors of neighborhood watch, whatever, and we actually look at the crime that we've had for the month before. And we look for what are called cluster groups.
NOLANWe make -- might find five thefts from auto within a block, and just by studying that, if we go out at night, most often, we find a streetlight out and we can then call the 311 number and have that streetlight repaired, and that problem is eliminated. So just by studying, on a monthly basis, the crime that we've had the previous month, we can then eliminate a lot of the crime or talk to our officers about concentrating in certain areas where we're seeing more crime.
NNAMDISamantha Nolan has trained over a thousand neighborhood watch block captains. She is an at-large member of the D.C. Police Chief Citizen Advisory Council. She joins us in studio to discuss neighborhood watch. You can call us at 800-433-8850. Would you like to get involved in a neighborhood watch? What makes you hesitate about it? I'm particularly interested if we can get calls from people who live in communities where there is a so-called stop snitching code in effect and whether or not you believe that the neighborhood watch will run into confrontations or face danger because of the so-called stop snitching code. 800-433-550.
NNAMDIStephen Mastrofski is a professor in the department of criminology, law and society and director of the Center for Justice Leadership and Management at George Mason University. On to the telephones, here is Kent in Washington, D.C. Kent, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
KENTHey, Kojo. Thanks for having the show. I wanna congratulate Samantha Nolan on the terrific work that she's doing. She's helped us start Neighborhood Watch in Wesley Heights, Foxhall Village and the Palisades. And, you know, we don't have any of this no-snitching code in our neighborhood. In our case, it's more an issue of residents not knowing whether or not they should call someone to report suspicious activity. So it's not just working with the police. It's getting the neighbors to talk to each other.
NNAMDIAnd that's been working out for you very well, you think?
KENTIt's working out very well.
NNAMDIThank you so much for your call, Kent. We got a tweet from Sub-Suburbanite who says, "Our neighborhood, Cascades, Loudoun County, just set up our watch. Goal: Stop the kids that hit our cars one to two times a year and create awareness." What this makes me think of, Stephen Mastrofski, is that there can be a variety of reasons for setting up a neighborhood watch, not only because of burglaries or thefts in a neighborhood, but I remember when there were the Orange Hat Patrols here in the District of Columbia, having to do with open air drug markets on street corners, and neighborhoods -- Neighborhood Watch members just wanting to showing a presence on the streets to show that they, in fact, control the streets and not the drug dealers. Can you talk a little bit about that?
MASTROFSKISure. I think that that's one of the most frequent reasons that people in urban areas -- and perhaps suburban areas, too -- get involved is that they want to do something about the quality of life in their neighborhood. Either they're experiencing a decline or they're afraid that something is about to happen that will make life in public spaces a lot less desirable. And that seems to be the sort of thing that keeps regulars coming back to the meetings and getting involved.
MASTROFSKIIn most neighborhoods, it's typically a very small percentage of the residents who actually get involved. But where there are benefits, everybody in the neighborhood tends to benefit. And so it's the kind of -- sort of reinforcement that getting involved with your friends and neighbors is itself a positive thing for a lot of people, regardless of its impact on crime and the quality of life.
NNAMDIOn to Lauren in Gaithersburg, Md. Lauren, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
LAURENHey, Kojo. Thanks for taking my call.
LAURENBack in the late '80s, I was a resident of Logan Circle. And we tried to organize a community watch because of the activity, mainly prostitution and rape incidents, drug operation filtering into the neighborhood. I was pretty much alone by myself most of the time. You might recall that I was on your television show back in probably '89 or '90, regarding my sending out postcards to vehicles picking up prostitutes in the Logan Circle area.
NNAMDIYes, that was the prostitution era in Logan Circle. I remember it very well. But you weren't able to find people who would sign on to that with you at the time. You'd be interested to know that, even as we speak, Samantha Nolan is working with Logan Circle. Samantha, what are you doing? Samantha Nolan, what are you doing there?
NOLANI'm meeting with the Logan Circle Citizens Association on the 13th next week to talk about setting up neighborhood watch in that location.
NNAMDIOne gets the impression that what we have now as compared to the era that Lauren was talking about in the 1980s is a more formal structure for neighborhood watches that can be used in almost any part of the city.
NOLANWell, technology has helped a lot with that. In the old days, it was a telephone tree, and now it's email, listservs, which are terrific. In Chevy Chase, we have over 3,000 members on our listserv. So if we get something from the police where they're looking for a particular car or a description of a suspect, we can send that out instantly to the 240 block captains and to the 3,000 members of our listserv, and all of those eyes are on the street, helping the police. So it's much easier now. People can stay in their homes. They don't have to come out, and they can just read their email and stay connected.
NNAMDILauren, that's something that you did not have in the 1980s. And, Stephen Mastrofski, it seems to me that the effectiveness of neighborhood watches have been enhanced, it would appear, with technology.
MASTROFSKIWell, that's a very interesting question. Unfortunately, virtually all of the studies that have been done that were fairly rigorous to evaluate the impact of Neighborhood Watch and likeminded programs were all done in the '80s. And so it would be very interesting to go back out to see if, for example, the enhanced technology -- technological capability strengthened the impact. But the studies in the '80s, again, did not show a real effect on reducing crime when they were done rigorously. But they did show people felt very positive about the experience and felt safer. So they felt better even if the data didn't show that they -- that the crime had gone down. So it'd be interesting to see if things have changed now.
NNAMDIAnd, Lauren, during the 1980s or 1970s, I was a member of Neighborhood Watch myself, and it's certainly made me feel better about the neighborhood I was in. But here is Michael. Lauren, thank you for your call. Michael is in Washington. Michael, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
MICHAELYeah. I live in a neighborhood where it's basically still controlled by drug dealers. They don't even live in the neighborhood. They come in the morning to visit their grandfathers and grandmothers, and they stay all day long, which creates a lot of addicts coming to the neighborhood to buy and break into cars and what have you. And if you do call the police, you are marked and you basically have to move from the neighborhood. There are some people that had to move from the neighborhood because they were in a court case where the drug dealer came out the next day because they didn't catch a lot of drugs with him. So there is no protection for the citizens in that neighborhood.
NNAMDIHow does -- Samantha Nolan, how does Neighborhood Watch train block captains to deal with situations like that?
NOLANWell, our first thing is never to put a block captain in harm's way. I remember eating at an outside cafe and seeing a burglary happen in a store near where we were eating, and getting up from the table and chasing after the person. And it was a stupid thing to do.
NNAMDIPut yourself in harm's way?
NOLANPut myself in harm's way after I tell all the block captains never to do that. It's very hard when you see something not to get involved. But in neighborhoods where it's really dangerous, we tell our block captains to observe and report. Do not get involved. And in that way, they can stay anonymous. There are anonymous tip lines. But going to the monthly meeting with the PSA lieutenant is really important because if you feed the information of where the problems are happening, you can leave it up to the police. And the vice officers can get involved undercover and make this -- make an arrest without you having to get involved.
NNAMDIAnd in the neighborhood where I lived at that time, the police did find ways for you to give them information anonymously about drug activity that was going on in the neighborhood. We're almost out of time. Samantha Nolan, what would you encourage our listeners who would like to join or start a neighborhood watch to do? What are the first steps to organizing?
NOLANWell, what I found in the last 10 years is that if you don't have someone who will take on the responsibility of director of the program, the program will fail. So we need somebody to volunteer to be the director. And as soon as they can get 10 people together, I will come out and do a training. They can contact me, and we can post on your website my email address.
NNAMDIAnd if you go to our website, kojoshow.org, you'll see a link to a crime map of D.C. You'll notice that the overwhelming majority of crimes seem to be burglaries, thefts or robberies there. So we have also links on our website to Neighborhood Watch website for D.C., Maryland and Virginia. Samantha Nolan has trained over 1,000 Neighborhood Watch block captains. She's an at-large member of the D.C. Police Chief's Citizen Advisory Council. Thank you for joining us.
NOLANThank you so much for having me.
NNAMDIStephen Mastrofski is a professor in the Department of Criminology, Law and Society at George Mason University. Thank you for joining us.
NNAMDIAnd thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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