What Is Neighborhood Watch?

Neighborhood watch signs posted around the neighborhood also help deter would-be criminals. Posting prominent signs indicating a neighborhood watch program may discourage illegal activity while promoting home security.

You've likely seen a "neighborhood watch" street sign before, notifying visitors that suspicious people and activities will be reported to law enforcement. You probably suspect it has something to do with preventing crime. What is neighborhood watch, and how does it relate to official police duties?

Generally speaking, the term refers to nationwide crime watch and crime prevention programs where citizen volunteers patrol their neighborhoods for illegal activity. The National Crime Prevention Council and other bodies support these programs as effective means of reducing crime rates.

Neighborhood watch programs are prevalent in the U.S. If implemented properly, they can be a valuable tool in crime prevention.

This article provides an overview of neighborhood watch programs. It also offers information about how they cooperate with official law enforcement agencies to prevent crime.

Neighborhood Watch Basics

The National Neighborhood Watch program was launched in 1972. The effort has grown substantially since then. Today, there are thousands of active groups. The National Sheriffs' Association (NSA) manages the National Neighborhood Watch program with help from the Department of Justice, local law enforcement, and local communities. The program seeks to:

  • Prevent neighborhood crimes such as burglaries, robberies, and vandalism; and
  • Improve safety in residential areas.

Neighborhood watch typically uses one of two main approaches:

  • Opportunity reduction: The use of observation to spot and eliminate potential opportunities for criminal activity. This includes initiatives like Operation Identification. This is a program for deterring potential burglars from taking property by marking belongings.
  • Social problems: The use of educational programs and other activities, especially for young people, to raise awareness and target the root causes of crime. These include drug awareness programs, tutoring, sports clubs, etc.

Benefits of Neighborhood Watch Groups

An active neighborhood watch deters crime. Criminals tend to avoid areas where residents are organized and attentive.

These programs also play a significant role in welcoming new residents and integrating them into the community. Getting to know one's neighbors is an important part of the program. This helps in sharing information that allows residents to become better equipped to recognize signs of suspicious activity. Bringing residents together also strengthens community bonds. Members get to know their neighbors and look out for each other. This fosters a greater sense of belonging and civic responsibility.

Block parties are a popular activity for these groups, which helps to build community spirit while also deterring crime.

How To Set Up a Neighborhood Watch

A neighborhood watch is set up by community residents who want to be proactive about safety. Interested neighbors volunteer to patrol streets on designated schedules. They keep an eye out for any criminal activity or threats to residents.

Setting up a neighborhood watch typically involves:

  • Recruiting volunteers from the neighborhood
  • Selecting block captains to help organize efforts
  • Registering the group with the local sheriff's office or police
  • Scheduling patrols and neighborhood watch meetings
  • Distributing contact info and procedures
  • Placing neighborhood watch signs
  • Undergoing training

The first meeting lays the groundwork for how the program will function. The initial meeting typically covers the following:

  • When to call 911 instead of the non-emergency number
  • How to submit reports
  • How to deal with victims of crime
  • Equipment distribution
  • Paperwork
  • Q&A so new volunteers understand the program before beginning patrols
  • Explaining how the program works by law enforcement representatives
  • Determining patrol zones
  • Sharing contact information among attendees
  • Scheduling first patrols and future meetings

Watch programs often have a block captain. The block captain's responsibilities typically include the following:

  • Recruiting volunteers
  • Maintaining a neighborhood map with addresses and landmarks
  • Holding meetings
  • Maintaining an incident file
  • Serving as the liaison with local police

Neighborhood watch members are encouraged to hold regular meetings. Frequent meetings help community members get to know each other and decide on program strategies and activities.


Local law enforcement provides guidance and training. Police chiefs often encourage their officers to participate in these sessions. They emphasize the importance of community involvement in crime prevention. Police officers can explain how to identify and report suspicious behavior.

Interactions With Law Enforcement

Communities involved in these programs work with the local police department. However, they don't have to make arrests or take actions typically reserved for peace officers.

Going beyond being the eyes and ears of the community can lead to conflicts and lawsuits. Stopping and questioning someone against their will, for example, can be considered false arrest. Indeed, taking someone into custody, even for just a moment, can be considered false imprisonment.

Volunteers should not act as police. They should be limited to observing and reporting criminal activity or suspicious behavior. Officers may not respond to every call since each department has specific dispatch protocols. Block captains and other volunteers will learn about these protocols.

Volunteers in neighborhoods known for violent crime or gang activity are often advised to keep a low profile and remain anonymous when reporting incidents. However, since neighborhood watch volunteers are often witnesses to a crime, they may be asked to testify in court.

Legal Considerations for Neighborhood Watch Groups

It's crucial for groups to follow proper protocols and not put themselves in harm's way. Members are instructed not to approach or confront anyone. The role is strictly to observe and report concerns to the local law enforcement agency.

Weapons are not part of the watch program and are discouraged, although local laws and permits may give a volunteer the legal authority to carry a gun.

If your neighborhood has a homeowner's association (HOA), it could be held liable for claims by visitors alleging a neighborhood watch volunteer injured them. HOAs should only establish a watch program with the guidance of local law enforcement officers. The HOA should have a written policy explaining that it does not control the neighborhood watch. The policy should also state that the watch is an independent volunteer group.

Promoting an Inclusive Program

Watch groups should ensure that all community members, including those with disabilities, are included and can participate. Outreach and accessibility will foster community spirit.

More Questions About Neighborhood Watch? Ask an Attorney

Public safety and home security are important. Community watch programs are a great way to help keep your neighborhood safer from crime problems, reduce the fear of crime, and improve quality of life. Remember that neighborhood watch volunteers don't have the same authority as the police and must know their limits. If you have a legal question about this or any other criminal justice situation in which you find yourself, speak with a local criminal defense attorney today.

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