What if the best cop in your city wasn\’t really a cop at all?
Increased strain on city budgets, along with a burgeoning wave of drug-related crime, has many cities turning to volunteer civilians for help. Neighborhood watch groups and community policing have become crucial elements in urban peace-keeping.
In San Juan, Puerto Rico, for instance, the police department is pleading with citizens for help protecting low-income neighborhoods such as Loiza, where struggles for drug money break out in frequent gunfights.
Aerial view of La Perla slum in San Juan, Puerto Rico. (Source: Jaro Nemčok via Wikimedia)
Neighborhood watch groups aren\’t new in North America. Puerto Rico already has more than 20 of them, and in the US, hundreds of Neighborhood Watch (NW) and Volunteers in Police Service (VIPS) groups chartered by the National Sheriffs\’ Association (NSA) and other federal agencies are now grouped under a larger umbrella organization known as Citizen Corps, which encompasses disaster preparedness teams as well.
The effectiveness of these groups has been proven and well documented over the 40 years since their rise in the early 1970s. Most urban communities in the US and Canada have programs to train volunteers for patrol, outreach, and surveillance. In many places, the goal isn\’t just crime-fighting, it\’s engagement with youth and other at-risk groups, with the goal of stopping crime at its source.
\”The Neighborhood Watch Program stresses education and common sense,\” states one online law and legal reference library. \”It teaches residents how to help themselves by identifying and reporting suspicious activity in their neighborhoods… In addition, the Neighborhood Watch Program gives residents the opportunity to reinvigorate their communities. For example, some groups seek to address youth crime by creating activity programs, which range from athletic events… to tutoring and drug awareness programs.\”
Neighborhood Watch is associated with another longstanding trend in police work called Community Oriented Policing, formalized in a subgroup of the US Department of Justice aptly named COPS. This movement stresses the need for uniformed police to work as participants in the community, not just fighting crime but trying to establish its roots in order to recommend and take preventive and remedial action.
This is all great, but there are some downsides. Most notable of these is the danger of volunteers descending to vigilantism. This is why police in Sanford, Florida, are making it clear that no Neighborhood Watch volunteers are to carry guns or take the law into their own hands.
Sanford, you\’ll recall, was where gun-toting Neighborhood Watch coordinator shot and killed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in 2012 — for which he was acquitted of second-degree murder this past summer.
Indeed, Sanford Police Chief Cecil Smith made national news this week to stress how the city has revamped the entire watch program to avoid any repetitions of the tragedy. \”In this program, it is clearly stated that you will not pursue an individual,\” Smith told media this week. \”In this new program, it clearly indicates that you will not carry a firearm when performing your duties as a neighborhood watch captain or participant.\”
Besides the dangers of hotheaded volunteers, watch programs also suffer from a lack of new recruits. \”[F]or whatever reason, the younger crowd doesn\’t want to get involved. That seems to be par across the board,\” lamented Fairfax County (Virginia) Master Police Officer J.T. Frey, in a local media interview this week.
As with many other voluntary groups, enthusiasm is tough to drum up among young people already burdened with oversized jobs and family demands. Still, it\’s regrettable to see yet another essential element of community neglected by the very people who could make the most difference.
The need for volunteer police work won\’t be ending anytime soon. As crime continues and police staff is stretched ever thinner, it\’s time to focus on how to grow the ranks of unpaid citizens intent not just on preventing crime but on building peace.