by M.C. Blakeman
(PNS) -- When a serial rapist terrorized a community near San Ramon, California, a local police officer called in Neighborhood Watch leaders to give them a detailed description of the suspect. When the man re-appeared, informed neighbors called police. Within days, the rapist went to jail.
When al-Qaeda's plans to bomb the American Stock Exchange in New York recently came to light, Homeland Security Chief Tom Ridge raised the alert level to orange and barricades went up around financial institutions. Then the public learned that Ridge based the new alert on three-year-old information. Within days, the Bush administration was scraping egg off its face.
Politics aside, these two scenarios show the stark difference between giving citizens information that enables them to act and information that leaves them confused and fearful. It also reveals the limitations of grafting a domestic crime-fighting tactic like Neighborhood Watch onto the problem of international terrorism.
Yet, that's exactly what's happening to the decades-old volunteer crime prevention strategy most people recognize from the signs featuring a large eyeball and the warning that "suspicious activities will be reported to police." This fall, the National Crime Prevention Council plans to train Neighborhood Watchers to include in their definition of "suspicious activities" anything that could be linked to terrorism.
Both George Bush and John Kerry include Neighborhood Watch in their arsenal of weapons against al-Qaeda. Bush brought the Watch under the Homeland Security umbrella after 9/11 and granted the National Sheriffs Association almost $2 million in 2003 to expand the list of registered Watch groups. Kerry and running mate John Edwards have also called for raising the number of Watches. Campaigning in Colorado, Kerry said that since Americans already use the approach to protect themselves against vandals or burglars, they might also apply it against terrorists.
Civil libertarians are quick to warn against turning neighbors into snitches based on racial or ethnic profiling. But the deeper flaw in both Bush and Kerry's approach is a basic misunderstanding of the real genius of Neighborhood Watch: It works best as a grassroots, citizen-led effort, not as a top-down federal program.
From its inception in the late 1960s, the concept represented a shift away from citizens being passive recipients of government services and police protection to neighbors taking charge of their own security as local units independent of police control. In 1972, "Neighborhood Watch" was officially born when the National Sheriffs Association institutionalized it. That's when the talk of neighbors as the "eyes and ears" of police became more common, and citizens became adjuncts to law enforcement -- not directors of it.
Nevertheless, the two basic insights that gave birth to the Watch and underpin it remain: The police can't do the job alone, and an organized community where neighbors look out for each other is harder to victimize than one where individuals are isolated and fearful. With an average of 2.4 police per 1,000 residents in the U.S, it's obvious that a couple of officers in a patrol car can't possibly keep hundreds of people safe unless somebody else pitches in. When ordinary people do pitch in, they form bonds with each other, and it's those relationships -- not just reporting to police -- which actually deter crime.
At its best, Neighborhood Watch has logged countless success stories. Neighbors have taken back public parks from drug dealers in Richmond, California and reduced gang violence in Boston. They've stopped burglars in rural Mississippi and suburban Ohio.
Yet, Neighborhood Watch also has potential for abuse. In their efforts to identify "suspicious activities," neighbors are taught to look for anyone who "doesn't belong" in an area. It doesn't take a great leap of the imagination to see how immigrants and those with limited English could be identified as "not belonging." Further, some websites that explain how to start a local Watch emphasize the need to report suspicious activity so law enforcement will have "probable cause" to act -- without explaining the downside of such calls. In post-Patriot Act America, the green light of "probable cause" gives authorities permission to bypass privacy protections, which can lead to police misconduct and abuse.
For now, Neighborhood Watch groups in the U.S. are still too diffuse for the government to march them lockstep into the war on terror. The fact is, Watch groups are notoriously ephemeral. Some dissolve once active neighbors move away or a particular crime threat lessens. And most of the people who sign up are far more concerned about robbers and rapists than al-Qaeda operatives. In high-crime areas, drive-by shooters pose a far greater threat than radical jihadists.
Long-lasting groups tend to be those which move beyond crime issues and take on larger community problems, like organizing a job fair for local unemployed teens. Rather than being merely extra "eyes and ears" for the cops, such groups inevitably demand more accountability from police departments. For whether threats to citizenry come from the specter of terrorists, or a police state, an alert and watchful citizenry may be the best protection of all.
August 30, 2004 (http://www.albionmonitor.net) All Rights Reserved. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to use in any format.
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