Suspicious passers-by and rabbits: the daily practices of WhatsApp neighbourhood crime prevention
In the following blog post, Anouk Mols and Jason Pridmore share the underlying ideas behind their article titled “When Citizens Are “Actually Doing Police Work”: The Blurring of Boundaries in WhatsApp Neighbourhood Crime Prevention Groups in The Netherlands,” which was recently published in the journal Surveillance & Society.
People in the Netherlands are mostly pragmatic, perhaps best evidenced by the use of an abundance of ever-present sand to hold back the sea and create new areas — below sea level — for living and farming for several centuries. It should not be surprising that the Dutch likewise use what they have to combat growing concerns about security in local neighbourhoods — specifically mobile devices and messaging apps. Both of us as authors of this article live in urban areas of the Netherlands, densely populated neighbourhoods nearby shops, public transport and highway connections where most citizens feel safe. Yet in 2015, one of us was invited by a neighbour to participate in a WhatsApp group with the goal to safeguard the neighbourhood. The neighbour shared guidelines which are based on the premise that before taking action, neighbours first alert the police. These WhatsApp Neighbourhood Crime Prevention (WNCP) guidelines are used throughout the Netherlands.
There were about 40 participants enrolled in the group and the moderator stressed that the WhatsApp group was only to be used for safety reasons. However, in the following months, it became clear that the guidelines as well as the goal of the group led to confusion among participants. Tensions between neighbours increased and created a distrustful atmosphere.
A couple of specific events inspired us to explore WNCP activities in all their diversity as an emerging practice in the Netherlands. In the first week of participating in the group, a picture was shared of a dark-skinned woman walking on the sidewalk. After the question was posed “Who knows what she’s doing here?”, a neighbour matter-of-factly stated that this person came to pick something up at her house. Similar practices in the following months not only revealed that the guidelines were not followed because the police were not once involved, but also that it appeared to be a common practice to be distrustful towards unknown passers-by. These persons were often photographed without their awareness or consent, and most were either visible minorities or people identifiably from Eastern Europe (for instance vehicles with Polish licence plates). These racialised and xenophobic practices were rarely questioned by any participants.
Some weeks later, a neighbour shared an image of a rabbit in her backyard with the goal of finding the owner. Quickly, she was reprimanded by many neighbours that this did not concern a neighbourhood safety issue. Even though her message alerted the owner of the rabbit which was safely returned home, a heated discussion followed. Again, tensions within the group made it clear that opinions about the goal of the WNCP group varied. Some neighbours appreciated more social support practices, whereas others strictly wanted to limit the use of the group to suspicious situations. Of course, there were a number of genuine security concerns dealt with in these groups — a chimney fire report, information about a series of petty thefts in the area, and a confused elderly person returned to her family.
We saw these self-regulating groups as both problematic and potentially positive ways in which citizens became responsible for neighbourhood safety. It raised questions about whether these citizens can also be held accountable when their safeguarding practices fail or happen to escalate. We developed the pressing question that we aim to answer in our article: How to minimise obtrusive surveillance practices and allow for potential social benefits in WNCP practices?