The Neighbourhood Watch programme has its roots in the criminological 'Situational Prevention' and 'Theory of Routine Activity’. The scope of intervention of Neighbourhood Watch is very specific, and never overlaps with the functions performed by the police: the repression of offenders remains an exclusive domain of the law enforcement agencies.
However, participating in community security requires not only a significant cultural change on the part of the institutions and the police, but also a cultural change in civil society.
It is not enough for citizens to trust the police and for the police to trust citizens, but it is also necessary for citizens to trust each other. It is fundamental to realise that security is an issue for the whole community, and that there is a strong interdependence between your own security (real and perceived) and your neighbour’s.
How the Neighbourhood Watch works
Residents can interpret and understand the private space and context in which they live (be it people or situations) better than the police, which makes them capable of identifying risks and criticalities in private contexts that the police do not routinely monitor and in which most predatory crimes occur. With Neighbourhood Watch, this interpretative ability is made available to the police for a better chance to intervene in the prevention and repression of petty crime. The knowledge and ability to interpret the context characterised by micro-community places represent an added value for citizens in participatory processes, both related to security and to many other aspects of community life.
Another important aspect is that residents are the only ones who can implement specific passive prevention actions in their private spaces for specific vulnerabilities (e.g., install high quality locks, install alarm systems, change of habits and behaviour, etc.).
The emergence and development of the Neighbourhood Watch in Europe has followed different paths depending on the history, political situation, and regulatory framework of each country. However, they all have in common two possible approaches to launch the programme: top-down or bottom-up approach.
Top-down approach means promoting the Programme through the institutions. This approach assumes an initial relationship of trust between citizens and police and can last as long as this trust relationship remains high. If the trust relationship breaks down, there is a high probability that citizens will stop cooperating with the police. This approach is difficult to apply where there is a historical distrust between citizens, institutions, and the police.
In Bottom-up approach citizens self-organise into Neighbourhood Watch groups. In many European countries, Neighbourhood Watch was established directly by citizens, and only later supported by the institutions and police (e.g., in France or Italy). In areas where Neighbourhood Watch started from the bottom-up, there was a good level of social cohesion and sense of community, and a good response from the mayors and local police. On the other hand, Neighbourhood Watch hardly started in areas where individualism is highly developed and social solidarity is lacking.
However, there are still some countries in Europe where the Neighbourhood Watch is barely tolerated by the authorities due to historical and cultural factors. These factors can be summarised in an atavistic distrust of citizens towards institutions, or a suspicion towards citizens' participation in the security of their communities, seen as interference in the institutional activities of law enforcement agencies.
Positive side effects
Based on Neighbourhood Watch experiences in both Western and Eastern Europe, some recurring positive side effects have been observed:
- reduction of perceived insecurity in the communities (this is extremely important because very often people think, and vote, based on this perception and rarely on objective crime statistics.);
- reduction of petty crime rate (the Ministries of the Interior of several European countries claim a reduction in crime from 20 to 40 per cent in areas where this programme is well developed.);
- improved citizen dialogue with police and institutions (dialogue is better structured where community policing policies have been implemented.)
Where Neighbourhood Watch is implemented and there is a good level of cooperation among neighbours and between neighbours and the police, we generally witness:
- an increase in social cohesion and citizens' sense of belonging to their community;
- an intensification of dialogue between citizens and institutions (especially at local level);
- a readiness of the institutions to develop processes of participatory democracy and the willingness of citizens to participate in them.
Ready for Neighbourhood Watch?
If the society is not ready for the promotion of Neighbourhood Watch programmes, by introducing into the public debate the principle that security is a matter not only for institutions but also for each individual citizen, the consequences could be counterproductive. Its 'forced' introduction could generate a perception of a loss of authority and status on the part of the police, and a fear of being 'evaluated' by citizens or, on the part of citizens, of becoming 'confidants' of the police. Instead, we are deeply convinced (and experiences in the field have proven it) that listening to citizens about their security needs and involving them, within a clear and defined legal framework, does not mean a loss of authority, status, or professionalism on the part of the police, but an increase in the latter's ability to prevent and repress crime.
Leonardo Campanale - EUNWA President
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