They walk down St. Botolph Street in the evening, stopping to chat with neighbors who sit on the stoops of their brick row houses. One evening they might spot a loiterer in front of an apartment building and ask if he needs direction.Carrying air horns and flashlights, they sometimes walk the back alleys of this neighborhood in Boston's South End, checking for suspicious activity.
These groups of three or four men and women are part of a walking watch in the quaint neighborhood that, like many other urban areas, is experiencing a revival as young professionals move in and longtime residents begin to take a more active role in their community.Concerned about purse snatchings, burglaries , and some violent crimes, the St. Botolph Neighborhood Association has responded by looking for ways to stop crime.
The concept of citizen participation in crime prevention has grown in the past decade as both police and citizens witness the problems caused by insular attitudes and community indifference in cities and suburbs. Crime-watch programs, which use tactics such as walking watches and encourage reporting of suspicious activities, are championed as a worthy solution by law enforcement officials and participating communities. Statistics on the effects of the more than 20,000 crime watches around the country are sketchy, but most experts report that the lasting programs are a success.
"It has really made an impact," says Betsy Lindsay, former organizer and director of a community crime prevention program in Seattle. She is now in Washington, D.C., working with a national project focusing on problems such as arson. "After the program started in Seattle, there was a decrease in burglary, and an increase in reporting from eyewitnesses and victims," she says.
Ron Steger of the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration concurs. "It's result- oriented," he says, noting that crime has decreased by more than 50 percent in some crime-watch communities.
Most programs are aimed specifically at neighborhood burglary or vandalism, since burglary accounts for a substantial portion of the US crime index and is a crime that can be effectively resisted. But prevention techniques can apply to other crimes as well. When police departments provide crime analysis, neighborhood meetings can offer prevention information on problems such as auto theft, rape, or fraud.
The St. Botolph Street effort has had an effect on this small community. Besides starting neighborhood walks, the association has done projects such as painting house numbers on buildings, distributing safety tips to each home, and improving street lighting. Crime has diminished.
"We'd like to think it has something to do with the involvement of the citizen group," says Lt. Albert Sweeney of the Boston Police Department.
There are other facets to neighborhood watches. Along with a concerted effort to keep an eye on one another's property, neighbors learn to watch for vehicles unfamiliar to the neighborhood. some areas have a citizen's band system to report crime to police.
Some areas offer home security checks. Local police or trained volunteers visit homes and point out where a burglar might be able to enter. They offer tips to improve security. Property identification programs are also useful. Burglars often think twice about stealing valuables engraved with identification numbers.
"If you apprehend someone while the engraved numbers are still on the item, then he's in trouble," says Bernard L. Gorda, director of the National Neighborhood Watch Crime Prevention Program, sponsored by the National Sheriffs' Association. "And if he tries to remove the numbers, the person buying it can often tell it's stolen."
Do burglars and vandals actually avoid crime-watch areas? The issue is unresolved.
"There have been some controversial reports," Mr. Gorda says. "Some hoods say it does make a difference. Others claim that nothing would stop them. But common sense says watches do help."
A burglar interviewed in the Seattle area gives credence to this viewpoint, according to Betsy Lindsay. He said that window stickers noting property was marked or valuables that actually were marked do make a difference.
"But his overridingm concern is being watched by people willing to report him, " she says. "There are ways to destroy numbers or locks, but the indication that the area is being watched is a real threat."
Do crime watches drive crime from one area to another? Ms. Lindsay doesn't think they have to.The Seattle program is done on a citywide basis and has been closely monitored.
"Crime didn't move into an area that was nonprogram," she insists. "It was stopped."
Boston's Lieutenant Sweeney agrees that it is possible to stop crime, but adds that it might move elsewhere.
"If the watch is a universal phenomenon [in a city], it only stands to reason that criminals will have no place to go," he says. "But if it is only in certain neighborhoods, there will be what I call the jello effect. If you push in here, it bulges out somewhere else."
The road to effective community watches has not always been smooth. Cooperation between citizen groups and police is necessary -- but not always attainable. Some police departments worry that citizens will deluge them with false alarms or try to tell the police how to do their job. This concern is usually dispelled once the program starts.
The Seattle crime prevention program was first headed by a police captain and a civilian worker. Although now administered strictly by civilians, it is part of the Seattle Police Department.
"It was very important to have that linkage, that level of support, from the start," Betsy Lindsay says. "Throughout the years, the police have been able to give us crucial information on crime problems, security training, the expertise of a locksmith. And they've let our staff ride with officers in neighborhoods being organized."
But police also worry about the specter of vigilantism. No one wants citizens playing "cops and robbers." Stephanie Pendleton, who helped organize the St. Botolph walking watch, stresses that her group is passive.
"We carry flashlights and air horns," she says. "If there is something major , we make noise to try to scare the person away. But we try to sneak away and call the police if we see someone breaking in."
She admits that some volunteers would like to take a more active role in apprehending suspicious persons. In some neighborhoods, people accuse watches of trying to keep out strangers for discriminatory reasons.
Resistance fades as groups prove their worth. Boston's Lieutenant Sweeney points out that the St. Botolph walking watch is quite helpful.
"There have been a couple instances of handbag snatches where the watch has gotten in touch with us immediately and assisted in the chase and apprehension," he says. "In the case of a break-in, the watch has been helpful in tipping us off and locating people who were around at the time and who might have seen something."
The life span of a community watch is often short. When a crime problem arises, the community galvanizes and works together. When it is solved, it must work to maintain the program. Some experts point out that the group should have more than one focal point, such as local politics. The St. Botolph group has held hearings on development in the community. social events also help keep people interested. The annual St. Botolph street fair is always a big success.
Getting dedicated leadership for a community crime prevention program is crucial. Will Rykert, who formerly headed the National Crime Prevention Association, says that police departments can spark leadership by giving training or supplying detailed crime statistics to alert neighborhoods to potential problems and help control rumors.
"Neighborhood watches can work, but police must recognize that they need to work with citizens," says Mr. Rykert, who is now a crime prevention consultant.
As police budgets are slashed, citizen involvement is crucial.
"It's the perfect answer," says Ron Steger of the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration. "Cities can't put more cops on the streets, so they have got to have citizens watching and reporting."
But budgets are shrinking at the local, state, and federal level, and neighborhood watches need sponsorship.
"The money is not there federally," says Ms. Lindsay. "I strongly push the idea of volunteerism." Many programs are applying for grants from foundations and business, but grants take time to get and are usually only for short periods , barely giving a program time to establish roots. Local sources of money include private sponsors and service groups, such as a chamber of commerce or Rotary Club.
Information on neighborhood watches is available by writing National Neighborhood Watch Program, National Sheriffs' Association, 1250 Connecticut Avenue, NW, Washington, D.C. 20036.