You’ve almost certainly come across the familiar-looking sign of a black figure with a red line through it. No, it’s not the symbol for the Ghostbusters. It’s the National Neighborhood Watch. Across the country, there are hundreds of local chapters of community-based crime prevention organizations. While these groups are a collection of volunteers who set out to keep their neighborhoods safe, neighborhood watches also have an ugly side that still rears its head today.
The National Neighborhood Watch, a division of the National Sheriffs’ Association, claims to be “one of the oldest and most well-known crime prevention programs in history.” While it was formalized across the country in the 1970s, the groups focused on local community crime and enforcement were forming nearly a decade earlier and are a form of community safety that has existed for centuries. To understand neighborhood watch programs, it’s important to understand the entire history, including some of the less savory factors that have been a part of some of these groups for decades.
The Early Neighborhood Watch Programs
We often think of neighborhood watch programs in the modern context, imagining community members organizing and texting each other about suspicious activity. But the idea for the neighborhood watch actually dates back to Colonial settlements of the 16th and 17th centuries. These communities, set up on the East Coast of what is now the United States, saw a significant influx of European settlers. They utilized something known as a town watch, in which a group of settlers would parole the town on the lookout for suspicious behavior and potential crime. Versions of this date back even farther to the night watches in the 13th century.
The Neighborhood Watch Program in the Modern Era
In the modern era, neighborhood watches started to crop up again in the 1960s. According to the National Neighborhood Watch, these community-based efforts were launched in response to a rising burglary rate. However, evidence suggests that some of this stemmed from racist sentiments and negative feelings about unrest in cities as Black Americans fought for their civil rights. The original neighborhood watch groups were meant to serve as extra eyes and ears on the street, filling in the gaps and informing police about community happenings and crime. These informal groups were made into a national initiative by the National Sheriffs’ Association in 1972. Funding from the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration helped form these groups in communities across the country. Today, neighborhood watch programs have gone digital, with mobile apps allowing community members to communicate about suspicious behavior in their community.
The Ugly Side of Neighborhood Watch
Unfortunately, it’s nearly impossible to remove neighborhood watch groups’ racist history from their modern form. Studies of the history of neighborhood watch groups in the United States have found that the Ku Klux Klan played a role in forming some of these groups, and it is worth noting that many of these efforts cropped up during a time of unrest associated with the civil rights movement. Even today, the mobile apps that serve as the gathering place for the modern neighborhood watch are plagued with racism and stereotyping.
In a Nutshell
Neighborhood watches have a long history, dating back to Colonial America. And while these groups have been mainly depicted as friendly neighbors looking out for their own, it’s impossible to ignore the troubling history rooted in racism and stereotyping. Even as traditional neighborhood watches transform into digital groups, the seemingly altruistic system still struggles to rid itself of ugly characteristics.