Last fiscal year, more than half the police departments in America had budget cuts, averaging 7 percent, and overall there was a 3 percent decrease in sworn officers, according to a survey by a national organization of police executives. This coming year, the majority of those departments plan to trim their budgets further. With fewer officers on the streets, municipalities nationwide are calling on volunteers to help keep their residential areas safe. By starting or joining a neighborhood watch program, citizens can play a pivotal role in reducing crime in their areas.
"When resources are tight, it's more important than ever," says Michelle Boykins, communications and marketing director for the National Crime Prevention Council. "Police can't be everywhere 24/7. And we've seen that where neighborhood watches exist and are viable in their community, we have a lower incidence of crime."
According to Anthony Murphy, executive director of Philadelphia-based Town Watch Integrated Services, an organization of more than 720 town watch groups, the most successful programs are those that simply help people become better neighbors. By organizing patrols, block parties, and neighborhood cleanups, these watch groups encourage people to get to know those who live nearby. When you are aware "of the things that are going on around you, it makes you more equipped to address situations before they get out of hand," he says.
Neighborhood watch groups work directly alongside local law enforcement agencies, serving as their eyes and ears. They notify the authorities when they suspect unusual or unsafe activity, such as outsiders occupying an abandoned building, for example, or the presence of a youth gang. A watch group can be formed almost anywhere, including lower-income areas, since most rely on volunteer participation and generally do not receive outside funding.
If you'd like to start a watch program, your local police department is the first place to seek help. Departments often provide volunteers with safety awareness courses and even radios and vests for those creating civilian patrols. Additional resources can be found on the websites of the National Sheriffs' Association (www.usaonwatch.org) and the National Crime Prevention Council (www.ncpc.org).