Expert Commentary

U.S. Justice Department: Does Neighborhood Watch reduce crime?

2008 U.S. Justice Department meta-analysis reviewing the results of 18 research projects and studies on the relationship between crime reduction and citizen policing programs.

Neighborhood Watch programs became popular in the 1970s and 1980s; by 2000, roughly 40% of the U.S. residential population was covered by such citizen crime-watching programs. These neighborhood associations typically involve recruiting residents to participate in community meetings and various surveillance tasks around properties and common areas; a block captain and coordinator may take leadership roles and serve as liaisons to the local police.

A 2008 U.S. Justice Department meta-analysis, “Does Neighborhood Watch Reduce Crime?” reviewed the results of 18 research projects and related studies that examined the relationship between crime reduction and citizen policing programs. The research was conducted from 1977 to 1994, with about half of the studies looking at U.S. programs, half at U.K. programs, and one addressing a program in Canada.

The report’s findings include:

  • Citizen policing programs were associated with a “significant reduction in crime.” On average, there was a 16% decrease in crime in Neighborhood Watch communities when compared with control areas. However, the “results of evaluations are mixed and show that some programs work well while others appear to work less well or not at all.”
  • Overall, there was insufficient data to justify definitive conclusions about why such programs are associated with positive outcomes: “Potential offenders might be deterred from committing a crime if they believe that Neighborhood Watch areas are too risky; and improved police investigation and enforcement will incapacitate offenders. It remains unclear whether Neighborhood Watch deters offenders or enhances police investigation.”

The report mentions that other research has cast doubt on such programs, including a 2002 study prepared for Congress by the National Institute of Justice and the University of Maryland. It concluded that “the oldest and best-known community policing program, Neighborhood Watch, is ineffective at preventing crime.”

In the report the researcher writes: “The primary problem found by the evaluations is that the areas with highest crime rates are the most reluctant to organize…. Many people refuse to host or attend community meetings, in part because they distrust their neighbors. Middle class areas, in which trust is higher, generally have little crime to begin with, making measurable effects on crime almost impossible to achieve. The program cannot even be justified on the basis of reducing middle class fear of crime and flight from the city, since no such effects have been found.”

Keywords: crime, profiling, ethnicity and community, policing

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