Keep an eye out

A neighborhood watch program is an easy way to protect a community

Section: Homes,  Page: I4

Date: Sunday, September 2, 2007

In some communities, neighborhood watch signs can be found almost anywhere. On trees. Telephone poles. Fences. Most of the time, they say something inviting like "Welcome, this is a neighborhood watch community" - which, in a nice way, tells criminals to buzz off.

Residents in these communities have made a decision about their neighborhoods. They'll go to great lengths to keep them safe, realizing a call to police the day after slashed tires or a broken mailbox isn't enough. These residents prefer a proactive approach, one that, after sustained effectiveness, steers criminals elsewhere. It's a model most neighborhoods would like to follow. And it's easier to achieve than many may think.

The current system of neighborhood watches began in response to the 1964 murder of Kitty Genovese, a New York City woman who was stabbed to death in front of her apartment. Citizens were outraged when a newspaper article reported dozens of witnesses saw the attack but offered no assistance. Locals formed groups to watch over their communities and by 1972 the National Sheriffs' Association made a concerted effort to bring the program to neighborhoods throughout the country.

Since then, the formula for starting a neighborhood watch hasn't changed. The only requirement for organizing a group is finding residents interested in making their community safer. The National Crime Prevention Council recommends going door to door, posting fliers or making an announcement at neighborhood association meetings to recruit members.

"Six or seven core members is all it takes to start a neighborhood watch," says Tom Gebhardt, who works in the University at Albany Police Department and heads the Midtown Neighborhood Watch, which oversees the Pine Hills section of Albany. "Once you have some support, you can organize watch groups and have some structure."

For those reluctant to participate, there are a number of ways to contribute. Those who don't want to canvass the neighborhood can be what the NCPC calls "window watchers" - residents who seldom leave their homes but agree to look out for children and report any unusual activities they see.

Call the cops

Once a community decides to form a watch group, the next step is contacting local police. Most departments include a community relations officer, whose job it is to work with the public on the formation and installation of programs like neighborhood watch. Police will provide training and offer advice for successfully implementing the program, as well as offering tips for staying safe during foot patrols in your neighborhood.

One rule trumps all others.

"Never approach anyone," says Albany Police Department community relations officer Janet Parker. "Basically, the community should serve as our eyes and ears. In any priority situation, police should be contacted immediately. Then we can address the issues going on in the neighborhood. This way, we're working together as a whole to correct issues."

After a partnership with police is formed, residents can schedule watch groups and purchase necessary supplies such as flashlights, walkie-talkies and hats or shirts that identify the group. These supplies will be used as residents canvass the neighborhood in groups of three or more. Gebhardt says the Midtown Neighborhood Watch group follows this formula, walking the Pine Hills area from 8 to 11 p.m. on Monday and Wednesday nights, carrying flashlights and wearing flashing arm bands.

A place to avoid

As a neighborhood watch develops and residents monitor the community on a consistent basis, the NCPC says instances of crime may decrease quickly. Not necessarily because watch groups witness crimes and call police leading to arrests, but because a neighborhood known for fighting crime is one many criminals will avoid.

When this happens, neighborhood watch programs often fold, because residents no longer see a need to closely monitor their community. The process ends up repeating itself. A rash of crimes hit a neighborhood, and the residents once again find a watch program necessary.

To avoid this, and to best unite members of a community, Howard Stoller, chairman of the Council of Albany Neighborhood Associations, suggests holding regular meetings, where residents can build relationships and discuss any lingering or new problems that arise in the community. These meetings can work twofold. Crime issues can be discussed, as well issues normally reserved for a neighborhood association meeting, such as the formation of community gardens or ideas for new street signs.

"The idea is just to get people together," Stoller says. "Identify what residents want to accomplish and how they want it to happen. Generally there is some sort of issue. If not crime, it could be a change in the neighborhood. Maybe it's a firehouse moving out of the community. Usually when people get together and organize, they can make improvements to their neighborhood."

David Filkins can be reached at 454-5456 or by e-mail at