The Evolution of Neighborhood Watch Online: “If You See Something, Say Something!”
Recently, an uptick in online citizen involvement has generated a resurgence in getting to know our neighbors. With the recent national trend of “caught-on-tape” burglaries and iPhone-recorded police interactions, residents have been left feeling empowered to take back their cities from criminals.
Part of creating a safe, livable community is knowing the people who reside there. The quality of life increases in a city where people walk their dogs, visit with friends in the local grocery store and play with their children at the park. Neighborhood Watch programs started in the late 1960’s, as a result of the increase in local crime. In 1972, the National Sheriffs’ Association created an organized national homeland security effort to help establish Neighborhood Watch groups for local law enforcement agencies and citizens.
Throughout the years technology has improved, and as a result the eyes and ears of the community have also improved. Understanding that the traditional makeup of a family is not what it was in the 1970’s; people are busier, work more than ever, and manage their time differently. Evening community meetings for neighborhood watch have had fewer people attending and have become less effective. Shifting the communication and coordination of neighborhood watch programs to social platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram is proving to be more successful for law enforcement agencies. Additional websites like NextDoor.com and NationofNeighbors.com are also platforms where private social networks are created specifically for neighborhoods, helping neighbors communicate with one another. And areas throughout the United States are taking charge of their communities as a result!
The City and County of Honolulu, HI has won a national award for their social media engagement with their 33 neighborhood boards and Neighborhood Commission. Aurora (IL) Police Chief Kristen Ziman actively maintains a Twitter account to communicate with resident groups. And in Salinas, CA, a city known for its struggle with gang crime, residents have developed several neighborhood watch Facebook pages to help keep an eye on suspicious activity in different areas of the city.
Law Enforcement has experienced difficulty getting witnesses to come forward when a crime has been committed. Neighborhood watch programs are designed counterbalance this issue — to keep people alert and apprised of what is happening around them. The Department of Homeland Security has taken a similar approach with their “If You See Something, Say Something” campaign, enlisting residents to reach out to local law enforcement if they witness something out of the ordinary.
The campaign’s focus is to involve everyone in the counterterrorism effort and it is very similar to the basic structure of a neighborhood watch program; knowing the people and activities going on around you. While it may not seem realistic that there could be terrorist activity in your town — reporting suspicious behavior generates information that is critical to law enforcement. It’s particularly important now with the new shape of domestic terrorism — there are U.S. residents following the beliefs of ISIS and carrying out acts of terrorism in their own cities. Neighbors and co-workers of these people are the eyes and ears law enforcement needs to identify who these people are and stop them before they can commit crimes or harm the community. The San Bernardino shooting in December 2015 was an example of this type of localized terrorism.
If social media neighborhood watch Web-pages can encourage people to keep their eyes out for a robbery suspect, or to be extra cautious because of a string of break-ins in their area, then they also become more aware of their surroundings and the people they interact with on a daily basis.
Finally, understanding the challenge of diversified communities, with multiple language barriers and cultural sensitivities, is critical in creating a positive neighborhood watch program. The rules and regulations for posting and commenting on neighborhood watch social media pages must be clear and concise. Page administrators should actively monitor users’ posts and activity to ensure guidelines are followed. Posts should be focused on suspicious events and avoid generalizations based on appearance and other subjective factors. The Department of Homeland Security summarizes their focus on “suspicious activity” as follows:
The “If You See Something, Say Something™” campaign respects citizens’ privacy, civil rights, and civil liberties by emphasizing behavior, rather than appearance, in identifying suspicious activity.
Factors such as race, ethnicity, and/or religious affiliation are not suspicious. The public should only report suspicious behavior and situations (e.g., an unattended backpack or package, or someone breaking into a restricted area). Only reports that document behavior that is reasonably indicative of criminal activity related to terrorism will be shared with federal partners.
For more information on Neighborhood Watch programs in your area, please contact your local police department. And for more information on the Department of Homeland Security “If You See Something, Say Something” campaign, please visit: