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What Makes Neighborhood Watches Work


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. A special prosecutor in Florida will consider charges in the death of Trayvon Martin, shot and killed by George Zimmerman, a self-appointed community protector who claims self-defense. The case brings new attention to the neighborhood watch.

Zimmerman has patrolled his gated community for years and made dozens of calls to the police to report what he regarded as suspicious behavior. Neighborhood watches have been established in many, many cities and towns. Millions of people have participated, and very, very few wind up in confrontations.

But the Trayvon Martin raises questions about the rules and about the line between community action and vigilantism. If you've been part of a neighborhood watch, what did you do? If you're in law enforcement, did it help? Tell us your story, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, should the homeless be allowed to store their personal possessions on the sidewalk? That's on The Opinion Page this week. But first, Dennis Rosenbaum, a criminology professor at the University of Illinois, Chicago, who has done research on neighborhood watch programs, and he joins us now from member station WBEZ there in Chicago. Nice to have you with us.

DENNIS ROSENBAUM: Thank you, Neal. It's good to be here.

CONAN: We don't know what happened that evening between George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin, not exactly, but from what we know of Zimmerman's previous activities - riding around alone in his car, legally armed, dozens of calls to the police - is that typical of a neighborhood watch?

ROSENBAUM: Well, it's hard to characterize neighborhood watch nationwide. We have, you know, probably half of American residents live in communities with neighborhood watches. So as diverse as our country is, we have various configurations. Some are just eyes and ears, people that call the police. Others have foot patrols. Some others have cars patrols, motorized patrols. Some have guns. Many do not.

CONAN: So it may not have been common, but it's not atypical.

ROSENBAUM: No, that's right. A number - we don't know because there hasn't been any good research in the last few years, but the number of armed neighborhood watches is uncertain.

CONAN: And I also have used the term, and others have, self-appointed neighborhood watch captain. Aren't all neighborhood watch participants, by their nature, volunteers?

ROSENBAUM: Yes, they usually are. And this program builds out of - you know, if you just quickly - you know, we had this enormous rise in violent crime in the 1960s and riots on the streets, and the president created a crime commission. Out of that big report came the recommendation that the citizenry needs to play a more important role in the prevention and control of crime, and that law enforcement, it's - cannot do this by themselves.

And so in the early '70s, various police departments, some of the more progressive ones in Seattle, Washington; Minneapolis, Minnesota; started - encouraged citizens to form these neighborhood watch programs. And they spread like wildfire across the country. And - but, you know, the issue is: What are their roles? How organized are they? To what extent are they linked to law enforcement and coordinated with law enforcement and communicate with them?

CONAN: Obviously the rules are different, I assume, from town to town, state to state.

ROSENBAUM: Yes, they are. And, you know, I think as one of your participants said earlier, I think it's time for law enforcement to take a close look at their partners in this. They've had mixed feelings about these programs for years, initially resisting them because this is the work of police, but many of us encouraged them to allow these kinds of programs to develop because we know from a lot of research that crime, in fact, is prevented by the community regulating itself.

But then again, there's a line to be drawn here on what the roles and responsibilities are. And so some of these probably do not have anything in writing. You know, the extent of their training is uncertain. The extent of their oversight by law enforcement is uncertain. And I would argue that the more closely they work together, the better off this is going to work.

CONAN: And you say that the ties between these groups and the police can be very close, it can be nebulous, it can be nonexistent.

ROSENBAUM: Well, yeah, that's right, and it's - neighborhood watch, the problem with it to some extent, it was founded on sort of middle-class norms about watching out for suspicious people. And that concept of suspiciousness, it's not only been an important one in police work, but for citizens, who is suspicious? And that's clearly at the center of this debate, as well.

You cannot judge someone on the basis of the color of their skin or their religion, whatever. It has to be on their behavior. And what is suspicious behavior in that context? And, you know, the problem with suspiciousness - and for example in - making this program work in high-crime, low-income neighborhoods, in minority neighborhoods, is very difficult on the grounds that you have a very diverse group of people, sometimes from different classes, different ethnic groups, living together. And what's suspicious and what isn't is not a - you know, is a very difficult issue, and people don't like to get into that.

Also the issue that neighborhood watch was designed to build community and bring people together and get them to work together, and it's very difficult - and to work with the police. And the assumption that folks want to work with the police and want to report crimes to the police is questionable in many neighborhoods today.

We have a sort of growing movement, a no-snitch culture, for example, that says don't work with the police, they've been bad to us in the past. And so there's a lot complications with the program in higher-crime neighborhoods. Therefore, it has in practice turned out to be a program designed largely in middle-class neighborhoods, largely white neighborhoods where they're trying to defend their neighborhood against any kinds of declines or inclusions that may occur.

CONAN: And this in the context - and obviously these numbers vary from place to place, but in the general context of decline, a precipitous decline in violent crime over the past, what, 20 years.

ROSENBAUM: Yes, absolutely, and, you know, the research shows that some of these programs can be effective. Others have not been effective. They are part of a larger package. We would like to believe that community crime prevention should involve everything from preschools to high schools to churches to community organizations and neighborhood watches.

The police cannot do the job alone. But the issue is: Are you acting like the police? And when you get into the issue of not just - most of these programs, by the way, are just eyes and ears. So they report crime to the police and let the police take over.

But the more active patrols that are involved, they risk more confrontations. Research shows, for example, if the patrols have a number of - a youth involved, they're more likely to have problems because a lot of the kids they're confronting on the street are youth, and so that can be a difficult situation.

CONAN: Well, let's bring Curtis Sliwa into the conversation. Back in the 1980s, he was the night manager at a McDonald's in the Bronx when he formed a group of 13 volunteers who put on red berets to patrol the subways and their neighborhood without weapons. Known as the Guardian Angels, his group is now active in 17 countries with 140 chapters. Curtis Sliwa joins us from our bureau in New York, where he's a talk-show host on radio there. Nice to have you with us today.

CURTIS SLIWA: Oh, pleasure, Neal, and it is a shame that Zimmerman becomes the face of block-watching crime watch because the one rule of thumb is - he was a loner. He was like Travis Bickle in "Taxi Driver." He was patrolling the grounds of that gated community by himself. You never heard of him paired up or with three or four or more, which is typical of what crime watch and block watch is about: getting together with neighbors, and if you happen to be walking the grounds, doing it at least in pairs in radio communication with one another and then eventually obviously subordinate to the police, which he clearly indicated he would not be when they told him to back off.

CONAN: That's the one call that we do have on that occasion, where they said you don't have to pursue him, and he went on and did that. Anyway, that's one thing we do know there. But as you point out, he worked alone, not typical, and your group, another distinction, is never armed.

SLIWA: Never armed, uniformed, so red beret, red sateen jacket, interracial, all different age groups and patrolling as a group. So you have a patrol leader, a secondary leader, you're in radio communication with a bay station and obviously in communication with the police, and you're subordinate to the police.

So if, for instance, we were to report suspicious activity that we felt needed a 911 call to be made, you do that. The police instruct you to back off or stay away at a safe distance, then you have to follow and accommodate the commands of the police so that you not only have a partnership, and you're able to follow up on this situation, but also it's a guarantee to the society that you're not going to use excessive force, you're not going to be violating people's civil rights, you're not going to be stalking people, profiling people.

And in this case, what I truly believe in just looking at Zimmerman, he was hunting Trayvon Martin, and he was looking for a problem. And when you look for a problem, you're eventually going to find one.

CONAN: You may believe that; we don't know it. And we may find out, if charges are eventually brought, but we don't know that to be the case. But Curtis Sliwa, I do remember that in New York, back when your group started, there were people who raised their eyebrows at groups of young men in uniforms patrolling on their own.

SLIWA: Oh yeah, in fact they gave us a scarlet letter. They called us vigilantes because we didn't just report crime, we would physically intervene and break up fights and disputes and people on their way, make citizen's arrests when we actually witnessed crimes in progress.

So people felt: How could we depend on particularly young men and women, mostly minority, as the Guardian Angels are, coming from the inner-city to make these kinds of critical decisions that sometimes police officers wrestle with. Well, if you had to make them individually, you'd be absolutely correct. But if you train, if you have a vetted procedure, if you have constant updates in terms of what procedures are needed to be made, if you train people in the law in terms of what rights citizens have and that they don't (unintelligible), they don't have and also to protect the rights of those that you may be involved with at that point, assuming that maybe they have committed a crime or having good knowledge that they committed a crime.

Remember, the checks and balances are: If I, as a citizen - and that's all I am as a Guardian Angel - improperly violate somebody's rights, not only do I get arrested, but I'll probably be sued in civil court, and the nonprofit group that oversees the Guardian Angels, the Alliance of Guardian Angels, Inc., all over the world, they obviously would be subject to civil litigation, too. And that's fair. That's good checks and balances.

CONAN: So you don't do that stuff anymore, you don't intervene?

SLIWA: Oh no, we do. We do interventions, we do citizen's arrests. Remember, it's the right of every citizen to make a citizen's arrest. You just have to understand under what circumstances you can and then obviously how not to violate the person's civil rights as the police are responding to your 911 call. Remember, we're no different than anyone else. Our 911 call gets processed just like anybody else's.

CONAN: All right, we're talking with Curtis Sliwa. Dennis Rosenbaum, we'll be back with you in just a minute. Curtis Sliwa is the founder of the Alliance of Guardian Angels, based in New York, 140 chapters around the world. Also with us, Dennis Rosenbaum, criminology professor at the University of Illinois, Chicago.

We'd like to hear from you. If you've worked in a neighborhood watch, call and tell us what you did. If you're in law enforcement, did the neighborhood watch help? 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.


CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. You've probably seen a neighborhood watch sign. They hang on lampposts and front doors across the country. What we know as a neighborhood watch program got its start in the 1960s. Forty years ago, the National Sheriffs Association made the program a national initiative.

The goals, for the most part, are simple: Get more people involved in their community and reduce crime. We're talking today about how these programs work, the rules that guide them, and what happens when things go wrong. If you've been part of a neighborhood watch program, what did you do? If you're in law enforcement, did it help? 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Our guests are Curtis Sliwa, the founder of the Guardian Angels, now a talk-show host in New York City; and Dennis Rosenbaum, a criminology professor at the University of Illinois, Chicago. And Professor Rosenbaum, I could hear you trying to get in there.

ROSENBAUM: Well, I think Curtis has it right in a lot of ways. In terms of the Guardian Angels, they are trained. They've been through a number of crises. So they know how to - and they've survived over the years. And they don't carry guns. I think that's important, because once you bring guns into the picture, it complicates things enormously.

Police carry guns, and they are constantly facing this issue about their training, about self-defense, about when to use force and when it's appropriate and when it isn't, and they're constantly questioned about it. And so I think that the same principles about defending yourself have to apply in these situations.

So - but we have a lot of neighborhood watch programs that are helping their communities and are actually doing good work. So I want to state that. And I think a big part of it is, as Curtis is alluding to it too, it's how you treat people during these encounters when you approach them. What is your real motive, and what is the sort of procedural fairness?

Are you being fair to people? Are you treating them with dignity and respect if you are going to intervene? Because when you intervene, that's a whole new ballgame.

CONAN: Let's get a caller in on the conversation. Mike is on the line with us from Northport in Florida.

MIKE: Hello.

CONAN: Hi, you're on the air, Mike, go ahead.

MIKE: Well, I belong to the Northport Neighborhood Watch. We're a 501(c)(3) organization.

CONAN: A charitable organization, in other words.

MIKE: Yes, and we work under the auspices of the Northport Police Department. We receive a lot of support from the chief for our work. We do, of course, like every neighborhood watch, patrolling. We are instructed - first of all, we have to go through a background check to belong, by the police department, and we are instructed thoroughly as to not confront anyone but to be the eyes and ears of the police department.

In addition, we do a lot of community effort things, one of which we're very proud of, and that is we do video recordings of children. Parents bring them in. We fingerprint them, do a recording and give that to the parents in case the child is ever missing. We do transportation for handicapped folks at many events and generally have a very good working relationship with the police department and the other community agencies.

CONAN: And Mike, how do you sustain a group? As I understand it, a lot of these neighborhood watch programs arise in response to a specific incident, and after a few months or a few years, people lose interest.

MIKE: The membership is a growing membership. There is a turnover. Not everybody is required to patrol. You can do other things within the group. We're always looking for new members. We have pamphlets we hand out at events. We give T-shirts and hats to those that join. And fundraising, like everybody else, is always a problem. But...

CONAN: And we've heard a lot about the gun laws in Florida since this incident. Are your members armed?

MIKE: Are our members - I misunderstood you.

CONAN: Are your members armed?

MIKE: Oh gosh, no. No, no, no, no, no. We are not armed. We don't confront anybody. If we see something that we think requires attention, we call the police number that we have in our cell phones (technical difficulties) not to park there, not to put ourselves in any kind of danger, eyes and ears, let the police handle all the situations.

CONAN: Mike, thanks very much for the call, appreciate it.

MIKE: You're welcome.

CONAN: And Dennis Rosenbaum, that sounds more typical of the kind of neighborhood watch associations that you hear about.

ROSENBAUM: Yes, and notice that part of the reason they've survived too is they've branched out. We've found from research that the single issue agencies, organizations that focus just on crime watch come and go, but the ones that engage in multiple issues and prevention at other levels - helping children, helping the elderly, helping various groups - are much more likely to sustain their effort and continue on.

CONAN: Curtis Sliwa, he mentioned background checks. I assume you check members of the Guardian Angels?

SLIWA: Oh yeah, everybody gets vetted. They have to go through an orientation. We like to figure out if the person, the man or woman or young adult in front of us, is going to be able to assimilate and work with everyone and not a humongous I and me type of personality, which always causes problems anytime you have an organization.

In fact, with a guy like Zimmerman, who is like, we describe as a lone wolf, he would normally not adapt to the culture of us and we. So he likes to go out on his own. And you find a lot of that now as a result, Neal, of the subprime mortgage problem that caused so many homes to go into foreclosure, particularly in these gated communities, a lot of condos that were then emptied, the bank owns them, they don't provide maintenance, there's no security.

So what happens is teenagers break in, they vandalize, they have parties. Others go in to strip them of any valuables. So the community then begins self-policing without there being any structure, without there being any umbrella that the police department provide them so that there's constant contact.

And I have a feeling that it's pretty much the kind of situation Zimmerman was in, because there are many communities, particularly throughout Orlando, which has had the majority of foreclosures in the state of Florida that have suffered from that problem and have adapted without there being a structured program.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get another caller in. This is John(ph), John with us from Orlando.

JOHN: Yes, how you doing?


JOHN: My comment is - and I appreciate the gentleman that talked about working in teams and carrying, not carrying a weapon, because the major emphasis behind a neighborhood watch program is just that, it is the neighborhood involvement, not a single neighbor or not one particular person but the neighborhood. The other point I wanted to make is we work here in Orlando, in the neighborhood that I'm in, we work in tandem with the Orange County Sheriff's Department, which means we have a person from the sheriff's department that is designated as kind of the liaison for the community.

Of course, he is not always on duty, but we call them. And we are instructed that when you get a directive from the police, from the sheriff's department, whether it's the call-taker, you follow that directive and act accordingly. And in this case none of that seemed to be carried out by Mr. Zimmerman.

CONAN: The case in Sanford, Florida, and just to reinforce, you were talking about Orange County, Florida, not Orange County, California.

JOHN: Right, Orange County, Florida. Orlando.

CONAN: Yeah, indeed. And do you participate in the organization yourself? I mean, have you gone out on patrol? What do you do?

JOHN: Well, I'm actually a university professor. I'm a former police officer. But in my community we have a neighborhood watch, and when I was a police officer, we worked with the neighborhood watch programs. But it's clear that you don't encourage the citizens to carry a weapon - although if you have a license to do that, you may - but it's more of a - it's more of a community effort that gets everybody involved, and you work in tandem with the local police or sheriff's department, and you simply are like a good set of eyes and ears for the community.

CONAN: I hear you, John. Dennis Rosenbaum, is that typical - or how common is it that a police officer would be assigned as a liaison to neighborhood watch groups?

ROSENBAUM: Oh yeah, I think that's pretty common, absolutely, and those - I would argue that the closer the relationship, the closer the communication, the less likely there is to be problems, and – and you now, that people know what is expected, they know what their roles and responsibilities are both for the police and for these groups.

And they can work very closely together. I think that one issue I want to stress, and it's not just an issue about neighborhood watch, but you know, the whole issue of race and policing and race and neighborhood watch, we have to be careful.

We are trying to keep our community safe, and it's the issue of what constitutes suspicion, and I think that we need to - that's why when we interact with people, or we report people, we want to be sure that it's more than the color of their skin, it is about other issues.

And there's a danger of that in sort of the more middle-class neighborhoods that are predominately white, that if somebody of color comes through that somehow they don't belong in this neighborhood. And I think that we have to be - we have to step back and re-examine that and be cautious about the way we interact on these issues.

CONAN: And John, thanks very much for the phone call. Curtis Sliwa, that may have been - and I am - (unintelligible) again the word may - the situation in Sanford, Florida, with George Zimmerman. The Guardian Angels, though, patrol in a lot of places where - what Dennis Rosenbaum talked about earlier - the don't snitch attitude could be more of a problem.

SLIWA: Oh, absolutely. And that's where our intervention is critical sometimes for law enforcement or investigative agencies in solving crimes. For instance, you had the gentleman who called up, a professor, former police officer, part of the block watch program in Orange County, will go into areas like that - Pine Hills, which has been renamed Crime Hills; very poor, very impoverish, lot of dysfunction in households. And there's a culture out in the streets - snitches get snitches and end up in ditches.

Part of it is fueled by the subculture of the hip-hop community, so that young men, young women don't want to relate information not even to their parents or mentors or guardians or teachers - never mind the sheriff, never mind the police, never mind the district attorney. So what we'll do is we'll be at a crime scene, and the police eventually have to pick up and leave because they have other obligations, we can hang out in the area. We'll be befriending people. All of a sudden, somebody comes up to us, passes us a piece of paper.

This is the information the cops wanted, but I don't want to be seen talking to the cops. I don't want anyone to think I'm a snitch. And then we backdoor it to the investigator in charge. And sometimes, they're able to connect the dots and solve crimes. And we're able to relate to the person - hey, you did a good thing. You were able to remain anonymous, and we were able with the help of the police officers to close this case and make an arrest so that this person will no longer be a threat to the community.

CONAN: I wonder, has there been a case involving the Guardian Angels where somebody did - one of your members stepped over the line and you used it as an object lesson - this is what we shouldn't do?

SLIWA: Yeah. In fact, it was in reverse, a wrongful death case in Newark, New Jersey. And when we first started, a police officer shot and killed a Guardian Angel. It was a mistake. It was a tragic mistake. But I think a lot of law enforcement agencies recognized with the growth and development - the explosive growth of the Guardian Angels now globally, you have to have communication. There has to be the use of the technology that is available now, whether it's by cellphones or radio communication, because if you have one group on patrol and the police are responding, you want there to be synergy, because in that case, tragically, a Guardian Angel lost his life, both sides trying to do the right thing.

And I think from that tragedy, many people learned throughout the country that it's better to work and cooperate and communicate with the Guardian Angels and block watching, crime watching instead of them working independently and autonomously of the police or the sheriff's department.

CONAN: And, Dennis Rosenbaum, I know that's a concern of many police officers, that if citizens are involved in taking part and intervening, when they come on the scene, they don't know where to point their gun.

ROSENBAUM: Yes. I mean, that partly is due to the weak relationship. So if you work with your local neighborhood watch and you know who those people are and they come to the police department for training, it will be less of a problem. It's like police knowing people in the neighborhood. So it's important that this - that underscores the importance of an ongoing relationship.

CONAN: We're talking about neighborhood watch. Dennis Rosenbaum, a criminology professor at the University of Illinois, Chicago. Also with us, the founder of the Guardian Angels, Curtis Sliwa. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And this email from Martha: I was recently accosted by someone from the local neighborhood watch in Redding, Massachusetts. I'm an architect, was hired by a family to design exterior elevations for an addition to their garage.

As I was taking photographs of the house, I went to the house next door to introduce myself and ask for permission to be on their property to photograph. Although there were two cars in the driveway, no one answered the door, so I went about my business. As I was sitting on a chair in my client's driveway, entering data into my laptop, a car came screaming down the street and whipped into the driveway. The driver didn't get out but shouted to me, asking if I was all right.

I thought what kind of a question is that? Mind you, he glared and scowled at me throughout the exchange, treating me as though as I was doing something wrong. Meanwhile, I'm explaining who I am and what I'm doing with a smile on my face. So sometimes, people can jump to conclusions after reports. Let's see - we go next to - this is Carrie. Carrie with us from northeastern Oregon.

CARRIE: Yeah. This is Carrie.

CONAN: Carrie. Go ahead, please.

CARRIE: Yeah. Well, it just concerns me - and I know you had a number of different callers that hopefully are balancing this all. But I just would hate for a neighborhood watch to get a negative name from this. I live in a rural area, and my closest police officer is a bare minimum half an hour away. We don't even have coverage from 10 to 2 at night. And we are - have a very active neighborhood watch. We recently had a - someone shot in cold blood just a valley over, and that guy was wandering around. So we were all connected and talking to each other in case he came our way.

However, we are never - we've had a lot of training, and we do have to have our background check. We are never told to be the aggressor. However, we have been deeply instructed to have a defense. In fact, even to the point of - I was a stay-at-home mom with my kids, and I should have a corner in my living room where I go. And actually, we do have - most of us do have guns. However, I have two separate concealed gun licenses and have been trained. And we're told to go in the corner.

And so what I'm saying is that I would hate for something terrible to happen in neighborhood watch to be disbanded. You know, if it really went wrong because - I can't count on my police officer, not because he's a bad guy, but just because he's far away. And so my being connected to my neighbors and in fact we have a call list where we call - the first person we call is actually our neighborhood watch person and then 911 because they can get here in five or 10 minutes.

CONAN: Yeah.

CARRIE: And so I guess my main concern here is that we make sure that - I'm sure that there's all different neighborhood watches and some of them maybe don't function as well as ours. But it is a great program. And I've actually heard that the fellow that was involved with this horrible shooting of the young man wasn't an actual member of the neighborhood watch. I don't know if that's true or not. But...

CONAN: I think he sort of appointed himself and worked by himself.


CONAN: So - but...

CARRIE: He had (unintelligible)...

CONAN: ...clearly, the police were aware of him. If there was no liaison, he made dozens of calls to the local police, so they knew who he was.


CONAN: So, anyway, but, Carrie, thanks very much. Dennis Rosenbaum, you were saying?

ROSENBAUM: Yeah. Neal, I would like to support what Carrie is saying. I think that we tend to over - we want to be cautious about what can happen with neighborhood watch and how it can go awry. But generally speaking, we have thousands and thousands of people in this country who are volunteering their time to help keep their neighborhood safe. And I think that they're following rules, and they're doing it the right way. And we don't want to discourage that because as a researcher I can tell you we have lots of research that tells us that crime is prevented and controlled by the community being involved. And that's really, really important in the end. And that's how we create collective efficacy...

CONAN: Carrie, thanks very much for the phone call. And, Dennis Rosenbaum, thank you very much for your time today. I just wanted to squeeze in this email from B.D. in Boise: I remember the 1980s riding the train from East Orange to Fordham Road in the Bronx every day. The only way I slept on that train, Guardian Angels. Those kids did good. Curtis Sliwa, thanks very much for your time. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.