What is Neighborhood Watch?

You have probably seen a neighborhood watch street sign at least once, notifying visitors that suspicious people and activities are reported to law enforcement. You probably suspect it has something to do with crime prevention, but what exactly is neighborhood watch and how does it relate to official police duties?

Generally speaking, the term refers to a nationwide crime prevention initiative where citizen volunteers actively patrol their neighborhood for illegal activity. This article provides an overview of watch programs and how they correlate with official law enforcement agencies. See FindLaw’s Crime Prevention and Victim Resources section for more.

Neighborhood Watch: Basics

The program, managed nationally by the National Sheriffs’ Association with help from the Department of Justice and local law enforcement, focuses on “eyes-and-ears” training for neighborhoods. Plus, signs posted around the neighborhood help deter would-be criminals. Communities involved in these programs work with local police, but have no authority to make arrests or take actions typically reserved for peace officers.

Weapons are not part of the watch program and are discouraged, even though local laws and permits may give a volunteer the legal authority to carry a gun (either openly or concealed).

Neighborhood watch programs are created mainly around the concept of getting to know one’s neighbors. This helps in sharing information and become better equipped to look for signs of suspicious activity. They vary from one community to the next, but typically use one of two main approaches:

  • Opportunity Reduction: Use of observation to spot and eliminate potential opportunities for criminal activity and restore sense of community ownership
  • Social Problems: Use of educational programs and other activities to raise awareness and target the root causes of crime (such as drug awareness programs, tutoring, sports clubs, etc.)

Note: If your neighborhood has a home owner’s association (or HOA), it could be held liable for any claims by visitors alleging they were injured by a neighborhood watch volunteer. HOAs should only establish such a program with the guidance of local law enforcement authorities, while stating in writing that the program is an independent volunteer group and is not controlled by the HOA.

For details on starting a program in your community, visit the National Sheriffs’ Association’s USAonwatch.org website.

Interactions with Law Enforcement

Watch programs typically have a block captain who recruits volunteers; maintains a neighborhood map with addresses and landmarks; holds meetings; maintains an incident file; and serves as the liaison with local police. Going beyond being the eyes and ears of the community, however, can lead to conflicts and potentially lawsuits (stopping and questioning someone against their will, for example, can be considered false arrest). Indeed, taking someone into custody, even for just a moment, can be considered false imprisonment.

Therefore, volunteers should not act as police and are limited to observing and reporting criminal activity or suspicious behavior. Officers may not respond to every call, since each department has specific dispatch protocols, but block captains and other volunteers typically learn about these protocols.

Volunteers in neighborhoods known for violent crime or gang activity are often advised to keep a low profile and report incidents anonymously. But since neighborhood watch volunteers often are the first witnesses to a crime, they may be asked to testify in court.

Neighborhood watch programs are prevalent in the U.S. and, if implemented properly, can be a valuable tool in crime prevention.

Learn More About Your Rights: Contact an Attorney for a Free Evaluation

If managed properly, community watch programs are a great way to help keep your neighborhood safe. But keep in mind that neighborhood watch volunteers do not have the same authority as the police and must know their limits. If you have a legal question about this or any other criminal justice situation in which you find yourself, get a free legal evaluation from a criminal defense attorney today. 

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