By Art Hanson on November 20th, 2009
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We’ve run into several cases lately where, after information posted on Nation of Neighbors was sent to Law Enforcement, we received a reply similar to: “Thanks! but why didn’t you just call instead of posting it online?”
That response really surprised me. I’ve been focused on sharing this sort of information for so long, it’s been a while since I last paused to wonder why I think this is a good idea. Is it a good idea? Here’s my case for public intelligence – immediately sharing information that law enforcement might otherwise not.
Punishment vs. Prevention
There are many reasons why crime or suspicious activity might be kept private. One of the most frequently cited is that releasing information ‘might interfere with an ongoing investigation’. Releasing information out into the public might alert the suspect that they’re being watched and cause the suspect to somehow modify their behavior, reducing the chance that they can be successfully apprehended and prosecuted. From the law enforcement side, this is a good thing. After all, public opinion judges them on arrests – not prevention. Someone sees something suspicious, calls their local non emergency number and reports the incident to law enforcement, who take it from there. The problem is, that unless the suspect has actually committed a crime and is immediately apprehended, there’s no real benefit to the local community. Even in cases where the incident shows up on a public crime map several days or weeks later, the opportune moment for public knowledge of the incident has often passed.
Why make these incidents public immediately? If the incident you’re thinking of reporting affected you, chances are it could affect your neighbors as well. If a scammer knocked on your door, he’s going to knock on other doors in your neighborhood. The woman driving by slowly who may be casing homes isn’t only interested in yours. If you were a victim of a crime, there’s a good chance that someone in the neighborhood knows something that can help catch the perpetrator – or prevent someone else from becoming a victim. While there is a chance that the perpetrator will find out that there was a report made by some anonymous person, it will generally cause them to move on to some other neighborhood where people aren’t watching. Anyone remember the exterminator commercials where the homeowners solved their cockroach problem by turning up the lights to the point where they had to wear sunglasses indoors? Criminals work like that too.
Many of the incidents reported online would never have been reported to law enforcement. Calling your local police takes a much higher threshold of concern than reporting something confidentially online. Unfortunately, many callers are left wondering whether their call was appreciated or valued. There’s also the fear of retaliation – not knowing if their name will be given to the suspect – and the lack of followup. Did they act on the information? Should you be concerned? Were you blowing it out of proportion?
Getting immediate community feedback is invaluable – for both law enforcement and citizens.
By Art Hanson on September 22nd, 2009
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There’s lots of information out there on how to start a Neighborhood Watch and plenty of guidelines for building community involvement and target hardening (making your home and community a more difficult – and less appealing – target for would be criminals) but there’s not much information on what you should actually be reporting. Of course, some incidents are obvious – a guy with a ski mask climbing into your neighbor’s window, drug dealers on the corner, local kids stealing a radio from someone’s car. However, it’s unlikely that you’ll witness such a clear-cut incident and, if you do, you should call the police immediately, not file a report. Everything else is up for grabs and largely depends on the specific needs and problems of your community and the preferences of your local law enforcement liaison.
All to often we see something that seems out of place or suspicious and talk ourselves out of reporting it.
“That car with the tinted windows has just been there sitting in the parking lot for an hour with the engine running. Maybe I should report it.”
“Nah it’s probably no big deal. “
“I don’t know who to call anyway. If I call the police they probably won’t do anything. Maybe it’s nothing and I’ll end up looking like an idiot.”
Or maybe we’re worried about possible retaliation.
“I’d really love to report those kids hanging out on the corner but they’ll probably find out I’m the one who reported them and they’ll slash my tires.”
Or maybe we’re worried that we’ll look like a whiner.
“I’d love to report those kids on the corner but I’d look like a wimp. A real man would just go confront them.”
There are also neighbors who have none of these issues and report every last insignificant detail of their neighbor’s lives, or personal matters that don’t affect the neighborhood in general. You know the guy – every neighborhood has one. Your grass is too long, your trashcan sat out on the curb too long…
While there are many good outcomes attributable to Neighborhood Watch programs – a stronger sense of community, target hardening, etc., the underlying principal of Neighborhood Watch is that you, the community, are serving as the eyes and ears of the police, who can’t be there all the time. The hierarchical structure of Neighborhood Watch (participant, block captain, coordinator, liaison) exists so that the police aren’t overwhelmed by having to manage multiple points of contact with each community they are assigned to and also helps filter the information. This is where Neighborhood Watch typically starts to break down. If you decide to stick your neck out and report the car in our example, it still has to go through someone else before it gets to the police. They may also second guess you or alter the details slightly. Did you ever participate in the exercise in elementary school where the kid at the end of a row of kids is given a short message to pass down the line? He’s told that “Bob found a stray dog while walking home from school with Sally” and by the time the message gets passed down to the last kid it has something to do with a Lama getting stuck in a toaster.
Then there’s the lack of feedback. If people in your community are not actively engaged as participants, they will not participate. Your Neighborhood Watch will die a slow death, vines will eventually cover the signs you posted and the whole thing will be forgotten until homes start getting broken into again. People will be upset, accusations will fly and you’ll have a community meeting and the whole cycle will start over again. People like to know what’s going on in their community. If you’re secretive – reports go to the police but nothing ever goes back to the participants – you will not be successful.
I’m sure you’ve guessed what I’m getting at by now. This is exactly why we’re building Nation of Neighbors. In most communities, if you were to put the little, seemingly insignificant, pieces of information together that are scattered throughout the community you can build a story that will actually help law enforcement and community members find solutions – or catch perpetrators.
Our reporting guideline:
Report anything that may negatively impact public safety or security and has a potential effect on more than yourself that you have first-hand knowledge of.
You can also report any activity that your community would like to collect data on. Accidents, stray animals, crime, drug activity, gang activity, graffiti, and illegal dumping are a few examples of common reports.
Report the car, report the kids on the corner, report anything you like that you believe may adversely affect your community. Most of the reports will be quickly be forgotten. But once in a while pieces will fit together and help you solve a crime or, even better, prevent a crime. Reports are shown to other community members anonymously so you don’t need to worry about looking like an idiot or about retaliation. You can even elect to make your community group ‘private’ – no one will know it exists except the participants and you can hand select those participants.
Click here to learn more about reporting with nation of neighbors. http://www.nationofneighbors.com/pages/reports
By Art Hanson on July 29th, 2009
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Lately I’ve been working on writing a guide to “Networking your Neighborhood Watch with Nation of Neighbors”. I realized that I’ve spent so much time focusing on defining Nation of Neighbors, and putting the pieces into a tidy story that can be told and understood in the scant amount of time we have before a website visitor decides to go elsewhere, that I’ve neglected to say what Nation of Neighbors is not.
Nation of Neighbors is ‘online’ to the extent that we use the web as one means to deliver a service. We do not intend for Nation of Neighbors to be a replacement to the traditional Neighborhood Watch model. Personal relationships are the cornerstone of success for Neighborhood Watch – or any project out to build strong communities. You still need to hold meetings, talk in person to your neighbors and actively engage with your local law enforcement officials. Nation of Neighbors is designed to enhance these relationships – not replace them.
By Art Hanson on July 24th, 2009
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The unfortunate shooting incident earlier this week in Utah where a man on Neighborhood Watch patrol was shot and critically injured by a neighbor illustrates a few very important points.
1. Observe, Record, Report – do NOT confront. That’s where the Police come in. The man on Patrol approached and questioned two teenage girls. He should not have done that.
2. Involve your neighbors. The article quotes a neighbor as saying “Campos, who himself was a victim in the recent spate of burglaries, apparently was not aware of Serbeck’s neighborhood watch initiative”. If you’re driving by slowly late at night, looking around, neighbors are going to think that you’re the threat. If you’re using your vehicle to patrol for a watch program, mark your vehicle with some sort of flag or decal. Better yet, get some magnetic door signs that can easily be transferred between neighbors.
3. This is a perfect example of why we think the ‘Nation of Neighbors’ concept is a good idea. The two men involved in this incident were neighbors. They should have been working together on the same page. If this Neighborhood Watch group were using Nation of Neighbors and the man on patrol had ‘reported’ the girls a report would have been sent to his neighbors and police instantly. His neighbor may have seen the report and replied that it was his daughter and this situation could have been avoided. My point here is not to tout Nation of Neighbors – there are a lot of assumptions to this scenario. My point is that communication is the key to success in any community project – especially Neighborhood Watch.