Civic Duty: From Neighborhood Watch to ‘USAOnWatch’

By Marilena Liguori

On November 8, 2001 and in the wake of 9/11, President George W. Bush called on all Americans “to serve by bettering our communities and, thereby, defy and defeat the terrorists.” During the State of the Union address on January 29, 2002, he once again asked all Americans to commit at least two years (or 4,000 hours) to the service of their neighbors and their nation. Following these speeches, a set of initiatives to enable Americans to do just that were announced.

One of the initiatives was USAOnWatch, established in 2002 as part of Citizen Corps, one of four new programs under the umbrella of USA Freedom Corps. The idea behind USA Freedom Corps is to increase opportunities for citizens to get involved in strengthening communities, thereby contributing to the security of the nation. Citizen Corps seeks to directly engage citizens in homeland security by being prepared, getting training in first aid and emergency skills and supporting first responders.

USAOnWatch is an extension of the Neighborhood Watch program, which was set up in the 1970s to enlist citizens’ involvement in crime prevention. USAOnWatch, however, has broadened the original responsibilities and mandate of local crime prevention to include terrorism detection and prevention. Since its inception, Neighborhood Watch was criticized for encouraging social divisiveness. An evaluation of USAOnWatch suggests that some key elements of this program also threaten to create social tensions within and between communities and to undermine urban life more generally.

From Neighborhood Watch to USAOnWatch

Since its creation over thirty years agothe National Neighborhood Watch program has become an integral component of community-based crime prevention efforts in American cities. A Neighborhood Watch group can be formed around any geographical unit: a block, apartment building, park, business area, public housing complex or office. The program works to prevent and reduce crime at the local level by fostering collaboration between communities and law enforcement agencies. The program relies on an approach known as “opportunity reduction,” which seeks to decrease opportunities for would-be offenders to commit crime rather than attempting to change their behavior or motivation. Opportunity reduction is achieved by increasing the level of informal surveillance in residential areas and encouraging residents to watch out for and report suspicious incidents to the police.

Neighborhood Watch typically focuses on observation and awareness as a means of preventing crime and employs strategies that range from promoting social interaction and “watching out for each other” to encouraging groups of citizens to actively patrol the neighborhood. Neighborhood Watch groups act as the “eyes and ears” of the police. The broader intended impact of the program, however, is that by bringing community members together to reestablish control of their neighborhoods, quality of life will increase and crime will fall. For law enforcement agencies, Neighborhood Watch is a cornerstone of local crime prevention intended to increase local solidarity and self-confidence in the face of crime.

The Neighborhood Watch Program was pioneered by the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) in the aftermath of civil unrest during the late 1960s. The program was originally meant to rebuild community support for the LAPD while at the same time developing a network of watchful neighbors. In 1972, the National Sheriffs’ Association (NSA), a non-profit, took the concept a step further by seeking funding to make the program a national initiative. The Law Enforcement Assistance Administration awarded a grant to the NSA and thus began the National Neighborhood Watch Program. Initially the program was devoted primarily to disseminating information on the nature and volume of burglary and making residential property less vulnerable to break-ins. From there it evolved into a program that promoted the establishment of ongoing local Neighborhood Watch groups that encouraged citizens to partner with their law enforcement agencies in an effort to reduce various types of neighborhood crime. The program became extremely popular in the 1980s and the concept has been implemented in many cities, particularly in North America and the United Kingdom.

In 2002, the NSA was awarded a $1.9 million grant by the Department of Justice (DOJ) to expand and enhance the National Neighborhood Watch Program with a view to doubling the number of Neighborhood Watch groups operating across the United States from 7,500 to 15,000 by 2004. In order to accomplish this goal, the NSA and DOJ, along with other federal agencies, launched USAOnWatch to encourage the initiation and/or revitalization of Neighborhood Watch programs and to “empower citizens to become directly involved for the purposes of homeland security and emergency preparedness.” Today, there are nearly 14,800 registered groups nationwide. The initiative has enjoyed widespread success in Southern California, particularly in the Los Angeles metropolitan area. For example, there are over 1,200 Neighborhood Watch groups in conservative Orange County.

Neighborhood Watch Encourages Abuse?

USAOnWatch is based on the premise that residents are critical in the detection, prevention and disruption of terrorism. According to the official discourse, “USAOnWatch through Neighborhood Watch empowers citizens in our communities with the opportunities to volunteer to work toward the safety of our homeland.” The advent of this initiative can be considered an example of how the Bush administration has explicitly sought to inscribe citizens as active participants in the war on terrorism by forcing preparedness on them and encouraging them to be vigilant in their everyday lives. According to the NSA, one of the ways it aims to educate Neighborhood Watch groups on this issue is by providing its members with information on how to incorporate terrorism prevention into the mission of their Neighborhood Watch programs. One such information tool, United for a Stronger America: Citizens’ Preparedness Guide, was developed by the National Crime Prevention Council in partnership with the DOJ.

The guide outlines five specific themes: protecting one’s self and family; protecting and comforting children; knowing and caring for neighbors; reporting crimes and suspicious activity; and emergency preparedness. The guide instructs citizens to learn the normal routines of their neighborhood and workplace in order to be able to detect anything out of place, and to be on the lookout for suspicious activities, such as unusual conduct. Such statements are repeated in the literature of USAOnWatch, yet the citizen is not given any clear information as to what constitutes “unusual” or “suspicious” activities. This leaves the door open for abuses. The American Civil Liberties Union views this as part of “a massive effort underway to turn regular Americans into untrained government monitors who, pressed by constant urgings for vigilance and suspicion and lacking the training or accountability of professional law enforcement officers, are asked to report to the authorities anything they think is unusual or suspicious.”

Neighborhood Watch Can Divide Communities

Community crime prevention programs such as Neighborhood Watch have come under criticism for a number of reasons. First, empirical research carried out in North America and the United Kingdom indicates that Neighborhood Watch schemes are not particularly effective in reducing crime or the fear of crime. This is mainly because levels of participation are higher in homogeneous, middle-class neighborhoods that have lower levels of crime compared to inner-city neighborhoods where the program is less prevalent. Second, it has been suggested that in areas with community crime prevention programs, residents’ fear of crime actually increases; the constant focus on local crime problems undermines their sense of security.

Neighborhood Watch has the potential to encourage social divisiveness. By being on the lookout for “strangers” (those who are perceived as “out of place” in “this place”) and “suspicious” behavior, participants can be easily swept up in a culture of micro-vigilance that incites abuses and racial profiling simply on the grounds of “difference.” In his bookEcology of Fear, Mike Davis highlights this sinister side of the Neighborhood Watch program: Who gets to decide what behavior is “suspicious” and who are the “bad guys?” Davis views the focus on the threat posed by so-called outsiders and the need to defend the neighborhood as the basis of a “fortress mentality.”

In the special issue of the Planners Network Newsletter entitled “After September 11” (Number 149, 2001), Peter Marcuse, foreseeing that security will become the justification for measures that threaten the core of social and political life, writes that urban life will change. We should question the emphasis placed on Neighborhood Watch in the homeland security strategy, particularly given its proven ineffectiveness at reducing crime rates and fear of crime. The wider implications of USAOnWatch and the prospect of a terrorist attack, should not to be taken lightly. However, in an attempt to reconcile “safety” and “security,” breeding suspicion to the detriment of social cohesion can also be disastrous for urban life.

Marilena Liguori is a PhD. candidate in the Urban Studies program at INRS, Urbanisation, Culture et Societe, Montreal, Quebec, Canada.

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