Safe neighborhoods start with vigilant neighbors, and many concerned citizens around the country have founded Neighborhood Watch programs to help. To help you set up a safe and successful group in your community, we talked to the CEO of the National Crime Prevention Council—and glean information from its “spokesperson,” McGruff the Crime Dog. Here’s what they had to say about safety, resources, and tips for neighborhood watch groups.
Which government agencies, community groups, or law enforcement and safety professionals are willing to help concerned citizens set up a Neighborhood Watch?
Neighborhood Watch is actually a program of the National Sheriff’s Association. However, the National Crime Prevention Council has many downloadable resources, brochures, and assessments about Neighborhood Watch and home and community safety on its website. These resources can be used at Neighborhood Watch meetings and provide information for communicating safety and prevention tips.
For the National Neighborhood Watch website, visit www.nnw.org.
How do I recruit people to join my Neighborhood Watch? What types of roles are involved, and which types of people might be best to fill them?
It really does not take any special skills to start and maintain a Neighborhood Watch. What you mostly need is the desire to want to live in a safe place for your family and most people want that. Neighborhood Watch can also forge great camaraderie with your neighbors and a stronger relationship with law enforcement.
NCPC has a Neighbor Watch checklist that you can use to begin the process of starting the program. You can begin with a neighborhood canvass to see who is interested not only in having the Neighborhood Watch program but who would like to be a part of the planning committee to initiate the program.
NCPC also has several great surveys that the community can use as a starting point to evaluate the safety and security of their homes and apartments, and their neighborhoods.
These surveys ask questions on topics relating to doors and window security, indoor and outdoor lighting, and what security measures are taken when you travel. The neighborhood survey is great as a means of identifying a list of issues that can be challenging for a neighborhood with discussion points on ways to address them. Just go to this link to see all of these resources and more to help you get your Neighborhood Watch program started.
The NCPC Neighborhood Watch Organizer’s Guide might also be helpful.
Also remember for your first meeting, it is important to invite and involve your local police department. Many police agencies have a community policing officer or a sheriff from the local sheriff’s office who assist with these meetings. They can provide information and crime statistics for your neighborhood, talk about any emerging crime trends that may be occurring, help with the home assessments, and give additional safety and prevention tips.
What types of suspicious activity should be reported, and how can we spot a crime and stop it before it happens?
A great thing about Neighborhood Watch is that it embraces and strengthens many activities that neighbors are already doing in their communities such as watching out for each other’s homes and working together to solve problems. Neighborhood Watch brings the power of the organization and the ability to focus energy and resources. With NCPC’s neighborhood checklist, it is easy to see what types of suspicious behavior occurs in the community. The Chief of Police in Fairfield, CT always ask in his safety training “what is normal behavior”. Then, he suggests to think about behavior that is NOT normal. This is the type of behavior that we should pay attention to such as activity occurring in a vacant home, loitering within the community, acts of vandalism and/or graffiti, an abundance of strangers constantly driving or walking around in the neighborhood, or evidence of gang activity and/or drug trafficking.
Many jurisdictions have a 311 non-emergency number that can be used for reporting purposes, however, if it is an emergency or a crime in progress, please call 911. Remember, it is not the Neighborhood Watch’s job to stop crime, it is the job of law enforcement.
What crime prevention efforts can neighbors do to help make their communities safer?
There are many crime prevention efforts that can be undertaken to make the community unattractive to criminals. This begins with everyone using the home and apartment surveys to assess their own home and apply safety and prevention measures. These measures can include increasing outside lights, trimming bushes and trees for improved visibility from inside and outside of the home, making sure that doors and windows are locked at all times, turning outside lights on at night, and using your alarm system. If you are unable to afford an alarm system, place a placard outside of your home anyway to say that your home is protected by an alarm system. Usually just showing a sign will make a potential criminal move to the next and easier target. Remember, many criminals look for vulnerabilities and quick and easy access. The goal is to make your home as protected and secure as possible.
If you plan to go on vacation or a business trip, make sure you have a couple of lights on a timer in your home to come on at random times, keep music or a TV on, and remember to stop your mail and newspaper or have a neighbor pick them up daily for you.
Lastly, there are also signs that can be purchased for the community that states your neighborhood is now a Neighborhood Watch community. Having a visible sign at the entrance of your neighborhood will alert potential criminals that their actions are being watched.
Where can we learn how to de-escalate a heated situation, deal with suspicious individuals who won’t leave our community etc?
It is not the job of Neighborhood Watch group members to ever engage in a heated situation or deal with suspicious individuals. This is the role of the police department. These are the times that Neighborhood Watch members should call 911 to report suspicious activities and people. You don’t want to become a victim yourself.
You can assist the police by writing down key information to help in the investigation such as the description of the suspicious person (be sure to include color of hair, eyes, and other distinguishing marks; what was the person wearing and color of clothes; were there any tattoos or scars; what is the make and model of the car; did you notice the license plate tag number and state; what is the timeline of the incident). All information is helpful for the police in their investigative efforts.
What can be done to help sustain a Neighborhood Watch program and keep it exciting and thriving?
There are many things that communities can do to sustain their Neighborhood Watch program.
Mix business with pleasure. Have the Neighborhood Watch meeting but also build in time to socialize afterward. This helps neighbors to get to know each other better. Rotate who supplies the snacks and beverages so that the burden isn’t always on a couple of people.
Make sure to rotate the meetings to various homes or other locations throughout the community. Libraries often have meeting rooms that can be rented for free. You can include the faith community by considering having a church host a meeting. Local businesses can also assist with helping to publicize meetings and some even assist with donations to the group for big neighborhood events.
Start a neighborhood newsletter or Facebook page to highlight the great things that are happening in your community. You can also make sure there are timely prevention tips as well to coincide with holidays and special events.
Consider working with existing organizations such as citizen’s associations, tenants’ associations, or housing authorities. Partnering with these organizations can strengthen your Neighborhood Watch group and its efforts in the community.
Remember, teenagers are valuable resources. They can and should be an integral part of the group and could assist by biking and/or rollerblading to scout around the neighborhood. They will also have great ideas on how to get the youth active in your safety efforts.
Arrange to have McGruff make an appearance at a meeting, a block party, or other events. Contact NCPC at 443-292-4565 to find the nearest agency that owns the McGruff costume.
What else can Neighborhood Watch assist with?
Neighborhood Watch has greatly expanded from the mission that started it in the 1970s. Today, Neighborhood Watch groups have become invaluable with helping to strengthen their community with homeland security activities such as:
- Involvement with Citizen Corps – programs that ask individuals to be prepared; get training in first aid and emergency skills; and volunteer to support local emergency responders, disaster relief, and community safety.
- Help their community develop an evacuation plan in case of a hurricane, flood or other disaster or event. This plan should include a neighborhood directory with phone numbers and email addresses for everyone in the neighborhood.
- Help neighbors develop their own emergency preparedness plans.
- Discuss local warning systems and how to find information for temporary shelters in emergency situations. It is also important to know who in your neighborhood have certain expertise that can be useful such as medical and fire personnel or business owners.
- Discuss potential terrorist targets in or near your community – such as power plants, stadiums, airports and bridges. Neighbors can discuss the consequences should an attack occur and develop a safety plan with the help of local law enforcement.
What tips can parents give to their children to help them stay safe in the neighborhood?
There are many steps that you can take to help keep your family.
- Know where your children are. Have your children tell you or ask permission before leaving the house and give them a time to check in or be home. When possible, have them leave a phone number of where they will be.
- Help children learn important phone numbers. Have your children practice reciting their home phone number and address, and your work and cell phone numbers. If they have trouble memorizing these, write them down on a card and have them carry it at all times. Tell your children where you will be and the best way to reach you.
- Set limits on where your children can go in your neighborhood. Do you want them crossing busy roads? Playing in alleys or abandoned buildings? Are there certain homes in your neighborhood that you don’t want your children to go to?
- Get to know your children’s friends. Meet their parents before letting your children go to their home and keep a list of their phone numbers. If you can’t meet their parents, call and talk to them. Ask what your children might do at their house and if they will be supervised.
- Choose a safe house in your neighborhood. Pick a neighbor’s house where your children can go if they need help. Point out other places they can go for help, like stores, libraries, and police stations.
- Teach children to settle arguments with words, not fists. Role-play talking out problems, walking away from fist fights, and what to do when confronted with bullies. Remind them that taunting and teasing can hurt friends and make enemies.
- Work together with your neighbors. Watch out for suspicious and unusual behavior in your neighborhood. Get to know your neighbors and their children so you can look out for one another
The National Crime Prevention Council (NCPC) is the nonprofit leader in crime prevention. NCPC is a private, nonprofit organization whose primary mission is to be the nation’s leader in helping people keep themselves, their families, and their communities safe from crime. NCPC manages a public education campaign—symbolized by McGruff the Crime Dog® and his “Take A Bite Out Of Crime®” slogan. NCPC publishes books, kits of camera-ready program materials, posters, and informational and policy reports on a variety of crime prevention and community-building subjects. It distributes those materials through a large network of crime prevention professionals and national, federal, state, and local organizations. NCPC offers training, technical assistance, and a national focus on crime prevention.
Back in 1980, a dog in a rumpled trench coat said, “You don’t know me yet. But you will.” Since then, McGruff the Crime Dog® has taught millions of people that the police can’t fight crime alone – crime prevention is everybody’s business and everyone can help “Take A Bite Out Of Crime®.”
Through television commercials, comic books, live appearances, and more, McGruff has encouraged Americans to take common-sense steps to reduce crime. Some of his favorite messages are
- To lock doors, leave the lights on when away from home, and let neighbors know when you go on vacation
- Do things that build a sense of neighborhood and create communities that don’t produce crime and where people look out for each other and kids feel safe
- Get involved, to join Neighborhood Watch, and to clean up streets and parks
- For children and teens to protect themselves from substance abuse, bullies, and gang violence
Facts About McGruff
- There are approximately 4,000 active McGruffs (number of costumes in use).
- McGruff has a classy Corvette, a monster truck in Arizona, and a wiener wagon in Florida. But most of all, he likes to ride in patrol cars assisting law enforcement.
- McGruff’s favorite crime-fighting techniques are to teach children specific tips to be safe at home and school and to help law enforcement officers do their jobs better.
- McGruff is a “ham,” so he loves doing public service announcements for television and radio or posing for print or billboard advertising.
- In 2015, McGruff turned 35 years young. He had birthday parties all around the country, making appearances at health and safety fairs and other media events and showing off his 32-foot-tall balloon at county and state fairs. He has blown out birthday candles on countless cakes. He has made the most of these opportunities to spread the word about preventing crime.