Friday, May 9, 2008

The watchful citizen

The inscription above the main entrance to Nebraska's beautiful art deco State Capitol reads: "The Salvation of the State is Watchfulness in the Citizen." That's the whole idea behind neighborhood watch: residents will recognize and report suspicious activity more readily if they know one another, and will deter crime by their watchfulness.

Lincoln's a good city for neighborhood watch: there is a high level of civic involvement generally, a strong population of long-term stakeholders, and very positive police-community relations. We have a large number of households that belong to neighborhood watch groups--over 19,000. Some neighborhood watch groups met once and are rather inactive, others are conscientious about keeping up their own phone lists, sponsoring National Night Out events, distributing newsletters, and otherwise maintaining a level of activity and involvement beyond the initial meeting.

Wednesday, a graduate student contacted me. He is working on a project to create an index of social capital. Among the data sources he is examining as part of this index is participation in neighborhood watch. I had never actually examined the geographic distribution of neighborhood watch membership in Lincoln, although I had a pretty good idea about the pattern it would show when displayed on a map. I geocoded the records, and here is the result, overlaid against the hotspots for crime in Lincoln (click to enlarge):

For the most part, neighborhood watch groups are most common in areas where there is comparatively little crime. This is not cause-and-effect, rather, neighborhoods with high home ownership, long term residency rates, and relative economic strength are more likely to organize. Some of our most fragile neighborhoods from a crime standpoint have very few neighborhood watch groups. It is probably for this reason that the evidence on the effectiveness of neighborhood watch is not strong: you're most likely to have it where you are least likely to need it. Personally, I think active NW groups are a great way to build and sustain neighborhoods. I salute those citizens who are willing to step up and organize their block, and I wish we had more of them in the places where greater collective efficacy could really make a difference.

Just a little bit about the method here: the dots are actually a representation of the relative density of neighborhood watch members--not the individual members themselves. The yellow-to red weather-map-like density of crime was created from all crime types except those occurring at businesses. When you include businesses, retail crime like forgery and shoplifting skews things hugely towards the retail centers.


Anonymous said...

Could you rent me an apartment?
Neighbors and my family do not have a close relationship, though they refer to me as "the neighborhood watch guy"
This is misleading. It takes a entire group of people to make things work. Not just one person. So on that note I guess my neighbors are just pointing out that I may go a bit over on the "watch" part.
So here is a strange story.
In the middle of the night I get up and get a glass of water and use the toilet. I look out the window. While getting the water, not using the toilet. Seems a bit odd to look outside while peeing. I do not have my glasses on. I look across the parking lot and I see what appears to be two people lifting a large, oblong object wrapped in a quilt. They lift this into the trunk of a car. I quickly rush to get my glasses. I come back to the window and the two people are getting into the car and rush away. I woke my partner and told her what I just seen. I then phone the police. The conversation went like this.
911: 911, what is your emergency?
Me: I just seen someone put a body wrapped in a quilt into the back of a car. At least it looked like a body.

Well soon the police are here. They put crime tape up and I go out to talk to the officers. The blood they find on the steps leading to the car where the body wrapped in a quilt was, is validating. Something has occurred here.
Soon the car that sped away returns. The driver, who is my neighbor, explains that his dog has been hit by a car and they had to rush to the vet. I fess up and apologized for reporting what I seen. My neighbor thanks me. He tells me that he is grateful that I watch things so well and it makes him feel safer.

I am so sorry for his loss of his pet. The moral of the story is: You must have all the facts prior to judging a situation, as what appears may only be a portion of the truth.

Police have only a few seconds to judge and make a decision in a hostile or critical incident, so keep this in mind when criticizing police actions.

Anonymous said...

Neighborhood watches might have an effect of helping to prevent what might be labeled "social entropy" - just another system becoming more disordered unless affected by some force that prevents that degradation. That's an oversimplified view, but people that are ordered and care about their neighborhood tend to cluster together. People that are disordered and could give a toss about their neighborhood also tend cluster together (and that's unfortunate, but they're easier for your outfit to keep an eye on that way).

After you generated the map, did it pretty much show you what your gut instinct told you it might?

Tom Casady said...


Yes. I already knew that neighborhood watch membership would be highest in the areas with high home-ownership and low crime. Frankly, I was pleasantly surprised to see some more NW activity in some of our transitional neighborhoods than I had expected.

Anonymous said...

May 9, 2008 7:15 AM

That's an oversimplified view.\
I read that, TWICE. And I still do not get it. OK, I am a dummy. Please explain in non-PHD terms what you are saying here.

Anonymous said...

Short form: Birds of a feather flock together.

Anonymous said...

Did a neighborhood watch come into play and help summon LPD in time to bust Mr. Allen and his juvie sidekick? Are they suspected of doing the previous tire slashings down by the country club, and the earlier ones near 41st & Normal? Was Allen packing a weapon this time too (like last time), or just the dope?

Tom Casady said...


Yes, yes, no (yes). He got a whopping $100 fine on last year's conviction for carrying a concealed weapon.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the rapid answers! You trump the crummy local paper yet again. Was that auto theft of the running pickup their dirty deed too?

I'm very familiar with that area, and that stretch of 42nd has mostly single-stall garages and thus mostly single driveways. A lot of the residents park in the street (probably to avoid the morning "3-car monte"}, and I wondered if any of the slashings or LFAs were on cars that were parked in a driveway, or if they were all curbside parkers.

Tom Casady said...


Not responsible for the Mazda pickup--that was a boyfriend / girlfriend thing. Can't tell you for certain on the driveway issue. It's not mentioned in all of the Incident Reports. It looks like it was mostly, if not exclusively,cars parked on the street.

Anonymous said...

Thanks again! I wonder if this slasher/larceny team was also responsible for the repeated overnight burglaries that occurred at Jiffy Lube (48th & Normal) some months ago. That was odd, because they got hit multiple times, then it just stopped. I never knew if you got someone for those or not.

Rachael said...

Slightly off the subject... I live in a "transitional" neighborhood right now. I have lived in a few different neighborhoods in Lincoln and have never seen what I have seen in my current neighborhood. Tell me this though, we have a certain person in our building who happens to be a registered sex offender. He was convicted of an assault and resisting arrest, on top of all of his priors. This person has had their sentencing hearing postponed 3 or 4 different times. He lives off of disability due to having a heart attack from doing too much meth, and in my opinion is a leech to society.

I live in this neighborhood due to financial problems. I've been there since March, and we are already looking for a different place. Why are people (such as this leech) allowed to have sentencing hearings postponed for so long? Specifically in this case, due to this person having no children, no job, nor any other responsiblity.

It's not fun feeling like you have to watch your back just to walk out to your car at 5 in the morning to go to work. Not to mention having to worry about getting your purse snatched. :-)