Crime watches increasing; police cite their effectiveness
Once Nancy Love began seeing midday drug deals as she sat on the porch of her New Kensington home, she decided she'd had enough.
Three years ago, she helped to form the Parnassus Neighborhood Watch, relying on the mentorship of leaders from two other groups in the city to get pointers.
"That just infuriated me that they would do (drug deals) out in the public and be so bold, so I wondered what else was going on," said Love, 57, who bought her house 13 years ago. "When you own your home, you have a stake in your community, and when you let everything deteriorate, you're not going to have anything left."
Involvement in community watch programs remains strong even as crime rates are dropping nationally.
In September, the FBI announced that violent crimes fell by 6 percent in 2010, the fourth consecutive year of a decline. The number of property crimes has declined for eight consecutive years.
The National Sheriffs' Association, which has sponsored the watch-group concept for nearly 40 years, estimates 1,900 new groups registered with its national database last year, pushing the total to more than 25,000. That far outpaces the estimates of 7,500 to 10,000 such groups in the 1980s and 1990s, when crime spiked in the United States.
In 2002 alone, roughly 5,000 new groups formed, heeding the Bush administration's call after the 9/11 terrorist attacks to be more alert to suspicious activity, according to the National Crime Prevention Council.
Neighborhood Watch programs help to re-create the atmosphere of the "good-old days, when people knew each other and looked out for each other and knew the cop on the beat," said Matt Peskin, executive director of the National Association of Town Watch.
His group sponsors the popular National Night Out. The annual program ballooned to about 37 million participants in 2010, 15 times the size of the first event 26 years earlier.
"Especially in the last couple of years, every police department is getting crushed with budget cuts, so the community begins to play a bigger role," said Peskin of Lower Merion Township in Montgomery County.
In many communities, the typical watch group has morphed into a general town resource to sustain active memberships, encompassing educational programs, fundraising, family activities and municipal cleanups on top of promoting anonymous tip lines and encouraging residents to report suspicious activity.
• Block Watch members in Pittsburgh's Fineview neighborhood who have had a weekly "stroll and patrol" night for two years during the warmer months and organized a caroling outing for the Christmas season.
• The Aspinwall Neighborhood Watch, revitalized nearly three years ago, rewrote the borough's handbook, which volunteers hand-delivered to residents.
• A forum on drug and alcohol abuse, organized by the Bullskin Crime Watch, was filmed by the Armstrong cable television company and used in programs conducted by the Fayette County Drug and Alcohol Commission.
The new type of watch fosters a sense of community that continues even after concerns about crime dissipate, organizers said.
Bullskin's group has offered presentations about the Jacobs Creek Watershed, emergency medical personnel and volunteer firefighting.
"In doing this, we get a better idea as to what to do as neighbors and also make our community a better and safer place to live in," said Ed Zylka, president of the Bullskin group.
In a review of several studies, a 2008 report released by the U.S. Department of Justice's Office of Community Oriented Policing Services said there's some support for the argument that Neighborhood Watches are associated with a modest reduction in crime.
However, research shows that they're frequently set up in affluent, suburban communities that least need them, said David Myers, criminology professor at Indiana University of Pennsylvania.
"In these cases, they have little or no effect because there's not much crime there," he said.
The greater result, Myers said, is a reduction in the fear of crime.
That response is familiar in Sewickley Township, a municipality of about 6,000 people that instituted a crime watch five years ago because of a spate of thefts. Residents don't have a local police force for patrols, leaving state police to respond to incidents from a barracks that's about 16 miles away.
In February, the group will start its third annual citizens academy, a multi-week class of 20 to 25 residents featuring presentations by law enforcement professionals.
Treasurer Wayne Yezerski, 72, said he thinks the crime watch is making a difference.
"At the beginning, I don't want to say 'afraid,' but people were hesitant to call the police, and I think that's starting to change," he said.
Officers from local police departments say the groups benefit them.
Bethel Park police have recruited 634 members for the program they reinstituted this year. Already, they credit residents' tips for leading to several arrests.
Munhall police, who restarted their crime watch two years ago, say interest has "really blown up" in the last eight months, when they committed to posting regularly on Facebook for 2,740 followers. Each posting gets several hundred views, said Dan Boehme, the borough's crime prevention officer.
"I am completely sold on the (crime watch) concept," he said. "No matter what the form is, it's important to have that open line of communication with the public. It gives us such an upper hand in dealing with crime."