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Is Neighborhood Watch Effective? NW 101
Home Security, Personal Safety

Is Neighborhood Watch Effective? NW 101


Learn what neighborhood watch programs are, how they work, & whether they actually reduce crime

In theory, neighborhood watch programs help prevent burglaries, property damage, and other crimes in local communities. But do they deliver in practice?

Whether you’re moving into a community with an existing program or your neighborhood recently started one up, this article will tell you everything you need to know about them, including:

  • What they are
  • How they work
  • Whether they’re effective or not based on research


What is a Neighborhood Watch Program?

According to the official manual from the US Department of Justice (DOJ), a neighborhood watch program is:

“…a group of people living in the same area who want to make their neighborhood safer by working together…with local law enforcement to reduce crime and improve their quality of life.”

To start a program, interested residents will recruit fellow neighbors to create a neighborhood watch committee (NWC). The NWC will then hold a meeting to set clear priorities for the program and assign community roles to various members.

The most common roles include the area coordinator, who’s typically responsible for organizing community activities and is the main point of contact for local law enforcement, and block captains, who relay information between the area coordinator and residents of their block. (*The DOJ recommends one block captain for every ten to fifteen homes.)

The group or area coordinator will then reach out to their local law enforcement agency to garner support, meet with their law enforcement liaison, and receive guidance on how to address the needs of their community.

From there, the NWC will hold regular meetings (usually every month) to assess progress, bring up new concerns, and organize community activities.


What Does Neighborhood Watch Actually Do?

The way neighborhood watch programs operate varies from community to community, but here are some common activities they engage in:

  • Neighborhood patrols – Some programs organize patrols where a small group of members walk around the neighborhood, staying on the lookout for suspicious activity, lost or stolen property, and other security concerns.
  • Property marking – NWCs often encourage their members to engrave, use permanent markers, or even ultraviolet pens to write their name, house number, or postcode on their belongings (bikes, kids toys, expensive equipment, etc.). Tamper-evident tape, chemical etching, and RFID chips can be used for digital or other expensive items. 
    • This strategy makes items less likely to be targeted by thieves because they can be traced back to their owner. The markings also make the property less valuable for selling.
  • Home security inspections – NWCs can arrange for law enforcement officers to perform home security inspections in their community, identifying any vulnerabilities (locks, windows, lighting, lack of or outdated security systems, etc.) and offering advice to reduce the risk of home invasions.
  • Creating signs of occupancy – If a member and their family are out of town, other members can pitch in by picking up their newspapers, mowing their lawn, and moving their trash cans in and out to make it seem like they’re still home and deter would-be invaders.
  • Training/education with local law enforcement – Law enforcement liaisons provide NWCs with educational material and training on how to prevent and report crime, as well as offer recommendations on how to achieve their goals.

But neighborhood watch programs aren’t all about preventing crime. In fact, crime may be at the bottom of the priority list for some communities. 

As the DOJ’s definition states, these programs can also aim to improve the quality of life of those living in the area. This can include anything from feeding and providing shelter for the homeless to cleaning up litter around the neighborhood to mental health outreach.

The goal of one neighborhood watch program can be completely different from the next. It all depends on the needs of the residents and how they decide to tackle the issues their community faces.


Is Neighborhood Watch Effective? What the Research Says

In 2008, the DOJ conducted a meta-analysis of previous systematic reviews on the effectiveness of neighborhood watch programs—Titus (1984), Husain (1990), and Sherman and Eck (2002).

The results of these reviews were mixed, with Titus concluding they were effective (although the research methods were weak), Husain concluding there was little evidence to prove their effectiveness, and Sherman and Eck reporting that they were ineffective.

However, in analyzing all the studies referenced in these reviews as a whole, the DOJ found that areas with neighborhood watch programs saw a 16% percent reduction in crime compared to the control areas.

Additionally, a 2014 study conducted in Medford, Oregon found that across seven local areas:

“…one additional neighborhood watch decreases the crime rate…by about 3%, and one additional neighborhood watch per square kilometer decreases the crime rate by about 18%…”

Unfortunately, these studies aren’t clear on exactly why neighborhood watch programs can be effective at reducing crime. With so many variables at play, it’s hard to make a concrete conclusion.

But it’s not a stretch to say that the vigilance, emphasis on security, and community awareness that neighborhood watch programs cultivate are likely driving factors.

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