Thursday, November 09, 2006

Crime watch groups can help fight crime and create a sense of community

An article in the Morning Call today discusses crime watches. The article was spawned from a crime watch group in Bangor.

Bangor's block watch program is nearing a year old. Its approximate two dozen members patrol the streets keeping and eye out for illegal activity and also try to spread the word about the group. The hope is to increase membership.

Bangor Police Chief Glenn Kerrigan said watch groups ''can be very effective'' if the information they give police pans out.

Jean O'Neill, director of research for the National Crime Prevention Council, stressed that sometimes some small problems left unattended can be dangerous for a community. She used a metaphor to describe how neighborhoods decline.

If someone breaks a window of an empty house and no one fixes it, it sends a message it's all right to break more windows, she said. That can send the message that it's all right to break into the house, she said.

"It transmits the message that the rules are off the table,'' O'Neill said.

This idea is often referred to as broken window syndrome. The theory was created from a book entitled Broken Windows authored by James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling in 1982.

A successful strategy for preventing vandalism, say the book's authors, is to fix the problems when they are small. Repair the broken windows within a short time, say, a day or a week, and the tendency is that vandals are much less likely to break more windows or do further damage. Clean up the sidewalk every day, and the tendency is for litter not to accumulate (or for the rate of littering to be much less). Problems do not escalate and thus respectable residents do not flee a neighborhood. The theory thus makes two major claims: 1) further petty crime and low-level anti-social behavior will be deterred, and thus 2) major crime will be prevented.

Crime watch groups thus, often do much more than watch crime.

O'Neill says that watch groups need to expand beyond just crime to stay busy and viable. They need to focus on things like safety, or making sure the borough's codes get enforced.

''We've been able to keep people because we're active,'' said Bill Leiner, mayor of Coplay and part of the borough's block watch.

Initially, he said, Coplay fell into the traditional trap: after several burglaries in the early 1990s, ''people got fired up'' and formed a crime watch. But ''once things settled down, people stopped coming.''

In 1995, residents started a new crime watch, although it now focuses on more than just crime, Leiner said. They've established ''safe houses'' for kids on their way to and from school, they hold an annual bike derby, and have begun to look at the borough's feral cat population.

They've also worked with other similar organizations in Lehigh County, such as the watch groups in Catasauqua and Whitehall.

Like its counterpart in Coplay, Whitehall has expanded its focus. The group campaigns to get speed limit and ''watch children'' signs placed around the township, and has held fingerprinting sessions for kids.

Interested in learning more? Seek out your local crime watch. If you don't have one, consider starting one.

The National Crime Prevention Council says:
  • Talk to your local police department and seek its advice and support.
  • Work in teams and wear identifying clothing — T-shirts, caps, vests or jackets — or reflective clothing and patches.
  • Never carry any kind of weapon, and never challenge anyone you encounter.
  • Have members carry a pad and pencil as well as a flashlight after dark.
  • Be courteous and helpful to residents in the neighborhoods you patrol.
  • Keep a log and file reports with your local law enforcement agency.

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