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Learn how to organize neighbors to take action to improve their neighborhood.


  • What is a Neighborhood Watch Association (NWA)?

  • How can a Neighborhood Watch Association benefit your neighborhood?

  • When should an NWA be implemented?

  • How do you start an NWA where you live?

It's no longer safe to leave your car unlocked overnight - if the valuables inside the car are not taken, they will be broken.

Or perhaps you've noticed an unusual amount of coming and going at a certain house down the street. You and your neighbors have talked about the increased traffic, and you share an uneasy feeling about it.

It might be time to form a Neighborhood Watch Association.

What is a Neighborhood Watch Association (NWA)?

A Neighborhood Watch Association is a group of neighbors, in any size of area with any number of residents, who decide to come together to address crime and/or safety issues in their area. This group then works cooperatively with local government and law enforcement to develop solutions to problems and/or create interventions for issues that could become problematic.

An NWA may be organized by an existing neighborhood association, but the key element in a formal Neighborhood Watch Association is its relationship with local law enforcement.

How can a Neighborhood Watch Association benefit your neighborhood?

NWAs bring ordinary citizens into closer contact with law enforcement, making communication between the two groups easier, more efficient, and more effective. By being actively involved in an NWA, citizens become an extension of the law enforcement agencies' eyes and ears. As always, joint organized efforts are more effective than individual efforts.

Through citizens' involvement with NWAs, the community is provided with what can become an increasing number of people who watch their neighborhood for suspicious activities or crime. This organized effort makes the community with a Neighborhood Watch Association a place that criminals of all types will want to avoid.

When should an NWA be implemented?

Organizing an NWA in your neighborhood is always a good idea. However, the implementation process works best when there is an issue in the neighborhood that residents can rally around. A recent spate of burglaries or concern about graffiti can be enough to gather momentum.

Another important factor in organizing is law enforcement's support. It is best to implement an NWA when you know that local law enforcement supports the idea.

How do you start an NWA where you live?

The first thing that you should do to get an NWA started where you live is to call the local police department or sheriff's office to find out if they have their own program to implement and run neighborhood watches. Some of these offer signage ("We watch!") and other supports.

If your local agency doesn't have a formal program, you will want to create a plan that will work for both the law enforcement agency and the people in your neighborhood.

You should then find out from your neighbors if they support the idea of forming an association and if they would participate. If they are willing to participate, find out what times they will be able to attend association meetings. If you feel that you have enough support, set up a meeting time and place.

Then let everyone who was interested know, as well as personally inviting your local law enforcement to attend. If possible, it is a good idea to distribute flyers throughout the neighborhood one week before your meeting encouraging everyone to come.

Your first NWA meeting

The first meeting of your NWA is very important. It can determine who will participate and what issues the group will address. It is also the time when the neighborhood network actually gets set up. It is where direct cooperation with law enforcement can be started, and where plans can be made.

This may not all happen in the first meeting, but it is possible!

Many local law enforcement agencies already have a system for conducting NWA meetings. If yours does not, here is a sample agenda for a first meeting:

  • Start with introductions. Even if you know most people at the meeting, it is a good way to break the ice.
  • Set up some clear ground rules so that progress can be made in an orderly fashion, such as:
    • No blaming (placing blame does not create a solution)
    • No soap boxing (everyone deserves their turn to speak)
    • Listen respectfully to everyone’s ideas
    • If you disagree, disagree with ideas or positions; don’t attack people
  • Allow each person to contribute the concerns and challenges that they see for the neighborhood. Listing these items on a large tablet or chalkboard gives the group a clear view of all of the issues.
  • Do the same for the strengths and positive attributes of the neighborhood.
  • If local law enforcement is at the meeting, give them a chance to speak.
  • Organize the concerns that you have listed and decide which one is the most important.
  • Talk about ways that this concern can be dealt with, including increased involvement with law enforcement, local government, and any other support agencies available. Set an action plan if necessary.
  • Decide on the possible roles people might play in the NWA. Some possibilities include:
    • Communication coordinators at various levels
    • Liaison with law enforcement
    • Formal reporters – people who take regular shifts walking around the neighborhood (often in pairs or groups) and noting any odd or suspicious activity
    • Informal reporters – people who don’t have regular shifts, but who agree to be watchful in their travels around the neighborhood, and to report anything that merits it
    • Recruiters of new NWA members and those who spread the word about the NWA and about whom to contact if you have concerns
  • Secure commitments from those at the meeting about what roles they’re willing to take
    • Don’t try to make people feel that attending the meeting means that they have to make a commitment.  If people feel pressured, they may say they’ll do something, but it’s likely that they won’t follow through.  You want commitments from those who are actually committed.  In reality, most will probably be willing to act as informal reporters, since that implies no specific responsibility except to keep their eyes open.
  • Organize a communication system
  • Provide information on making property safer and guidelines for documenting suspicious activity
  • Set the time and place for your next meeting if appropriate

Using a communication system

A phone tree is a great way to quickly get in touch with your neighbors. You can use it to announce neighborhood events, to get in touch with neighbors for help, or to alert your neighbors to suspicious activities going on in the area-especially if you have made a call to 911.

The type of information that requires a tree-wide call can be discussed at the neighborhood watch meetings.

Implementing your communication system

  • First you need to choose a leader, co-leader, and section leaders. These people are each in charge of calling a specific set of people to provide information as fast as possible. You can organize by block, by natural groups of acquaintances, or any other grouping that makes most sense in your neighborhood or small community. Groups of 4 or 5 are most manageable, but larger can work.
  • The list should initially be provided to all parties included on the phone tree so people are aware of the calling structure, especially of their section leader's name and number.
  • Any neighborhood member who has something to announce calls the leader, co-leader, or section leader.
  • Information that should be shared is then distributed through a series of calls initiated by the NWA leader or co-leader, who calls each section leader with the information. Each section leader then calls members of their sections. This way information about potential or actual problems can get to the entire neighborhood in a matter of just minutes.

A phone tree shouldn’t be your only means of communication, however.  Unless everyone involved has a cell phone that’s on (and answered) all the time, there’s always the possibility of people not being home or not being available when a call needs to be made or responded to.  For that reason, you should a) make sure that everyone involved in a phone tree has a working answering machine, and b) set up another system as well, to make sure that all messages get through.

A logical backup system would be e-mail, as long as most or all people in the system have computer access and check their e-mail regularly. In a compact neighborhood, people without phones or e-mail could be contacted in person by a close neighbor, who could leave a note under the door if they’re not home. Whatever the system, key people – phone tree coordinators, e-mail senders, neighbors who contact others – should let others know when they’ll be away, and arrange for back-up, so that no one gets left out of the loop.

How do you make your NWA effective?

After you have your NWA set up, how do you make it effective? There are two things that you can do:

  • You can better organize the information you provide to law enforcement to make your contributions more useful
  • You can also make your neighborhood less crime friendly by making some neighborhood self-improvements

Here are some ways to provide more useful information to law enforcement:

  • When describing a suspicious person or vehicle it is always best to be as specific as possible, without putting yourself at risk. One way to do this better is to systematically go over visible details by using a description checklist.
  • A common issue is the question of how to determine if an activity you see is criminal or not. Another question is how to come up with enough information for law enforcement to take action when you know something illegal is going on, but can not prove it. These questions often apply to repetitive crimes such as drug sales. One way to deal with both of these questions is to use a suspicious activity log. Repetitive crimes often show an obvious pattern of activity.

Here are some ideas on how to make your property less conducive to crime:

  • Have reflective address numbers visible on both the front and back of your home
  • Use outdoor lighting to increase visibility around your home at night
  • To eliminate hiding places, trim bushes so they are no more than 3 feet tall and all tree limbs so that they are no lower than 6 feet
  • Use solid doors for all outside exits (without large glass areas or decorative panels)
  • Secure all windows:
    • Install height-limiting devices to windows that raise
    • Use track locks and place bars in the tracks of sliding windows
    • Close, lock, and remove the crank from all crank out windows
  • Make an inventory of all valuables by photographing them and writing the make, model, and serial number of the item on the back of the photo
  • Consider getting a home alarm system
    • Just the appearance of an alarm system can reduce the risk of a break in
    • Alarm systems often cause criminals to leave before finishing their crimes. (Still, remember that no alarm is burglar -proof and alarm systems only work when they are set and in proper working order.)

Here are some questions you can ask to grade your neighborhood's safety:

  • How easy is it to get in and out of your neighborhood? Does your neighborhood have several through streets? More easily accessible neighborhoods are more likely to have crime.
  • How active are the people in your neighborhood? Do people sit on their front porches? Do children play outside often? Do people go jogging or walk their dogs in the neighborhood? All of these activities show that neighbors can easily watch the area. Criminals are less likely to commit crimes if people are watching.
  • Are there many outside dogs? Dogs can help by announcing an intruder or other unfamiliar person in the area.
  • How dark are the streets? A well-lit area makes it hard for criminals to hide. Lighting also makes it easier for emergency vehicles to find specific homes or buildings.
  • Does your neighborhood have any public areas? Dark alleys or unmaintained parks are examples of areas that invite crime. Events like community clean-ups can change these areas into positive places.

It’s important not to go overboard here. People can sometimes get so focused on crime that they forget that not all unusual activity is suspicious. The fact that people wear clothes that are different from those of most neighborhood residents, or that their skin is a different color, shouldn’t necessarily make them objects of suspicion.  If you start seeing a lot of traffic in and out of the empty house down the street at all hours of the day and night, that’s probably worth a phone call to the police liaison. A young African American walking through a white neighborhood is not.

Some training in what to watch for and what kinds of mistakes an NWA can fall into can help ensure that neighborhood watchers aren’t overreacting to unusual but harmless neighborhood occurrences.  An NWA is meant to make your neighborhood safer, not to turn it into a police state where everyone reports what everyone else is doing.

How do you deal with emerging issues?

Emerging issues are hard to prepare for since you cannot know what to expect. Nevertheless, it is usually best to try and tackle a problem as soon as you can see it coming.

The "Theory of Broken Windows" explains that even small issues can grow big before you know it. The theory suggests that when minor events occur, such as broken windows, they will start a chain reaction of destructive behaviors and events if not dealt with immediately. If small things working against the community go unnoticed, they promote more of the same behavior, even increases in criminal activity. If people think that no one cares, they won't stop at breaking one or two windows. New York City employed this theory successfully in the ‘90’s, greatly reducing the rate of all crime by concentrating on catching and prosecuting those who committed small offenses – jumping turnstiles in the subway without paying, breaking windows, etc.

Regardless of what situation your neighborhood is in, there are always going to be new issues emerging that need to be dealt with. Keep this in mind when you approach your NWA work, and by working together as a neighborhood with law enforcement's support, you can come up with creative solutions to whatever issues come your way.

In Summary

A formal Neighborhood Watch Association usually involves working with local law enforcement agencies to provide extra eyes and ears for combating crime. Whether or not your group works through an existing neighborhood association, you should agree to and share guidelines for reporting suspicious behavior and activities.

A structured phone tree is one way to keep neighbors informed. Strategies for discouraging crime in the neighborhood and on personal property can be disseminated to all neighbors.

Keys to an effective neighborhood watch are working together and responding to problems ("broken windows") before they multiply.

Ben Burgen

Online Resources

Safe Streets. Topeka, Kansas developed a comprehensive program for peaceful neighborhoods.

USA on Watch Program - information from The National Sheriffs Association on the history of Neighborhood Watch.