The community must play a key role as “eyes and ears” in fighting crime, now more than than ever, says a group of residents in Bedford-Stuyvesant, a neighborhood which has seen a recent spike in crime – bucking the downward trend across the city.
A spate of shootings in Bed-Stuy this year has renewed calls to bring back a Block Watcher program, under which residents and business owners receive training by the police in order to spot and report suspicious activities.
The group, led by the community district’s public safety committee chairwoman Stacey Ruffin, has been proposing a revival of the program to police officers at the district’s precincts for the last two years. “The program should be reinstated because it’s vital for the community, especially helpful for new residents to understand the district’s norms and learn how to watch out for their safety,” says Ms Ruffin, a long-time resident in the central Brooklyn neighborhood.
Spearheaded by the New York City Police Department, the Block Watcher program was popular in the 1970s and 1980s. Each trained blockwatcher served a two-year term, during which they would be given a confidential serial number which they used to report crime or suspicious activities. Properties that house blockwatchers were also marked with a sign so that passers-by in distress could call on them for help.
The program was revived in 2013 across several neighborhoods, including Bed-Stuy and Astoria, and then halted again in recent years. Community affairs officers at the NYPD’s 79th and 81st precincts – which cover Bed-Stuy – confirmed that the program is no longer active, but would not say why it had been discontinued, or even when.
Changes and crime
Although Bed-Stuy has experienced a marked rebound since the 1980s, when crime and drugs were at a record high, residents are concerned by the recent uptick in murders, shootings, robberies and housing offences, among other felonies. For instance, shooting incidents in the 79th precinct fell by 85 per cent in the past 25 years, but rose again by 29 per cent in the last two years. In the 81st precinct, rape cases were down 77 per cent in the past 25 years but went up by 56 per cent between last and this year.
Some think this could be triggered by the neighborhood’s fast-changing demography. New neighbors moving in from wealthier and safer districts might have let their guard down, giving criminals more opportunities to strike. For instance, retiree Ricardo Agcauili, also a Bed-Stuy resident, points to online communities of Bed-Stuy residents peppered with complaints of stolen parcels or bicycles left on their stoops.
“In cases like that, having a neighborhood watch group might be helpful, not only for spotting crime, but helping residents get acquainted to the norms of each community,” says Agcauili.
While Bed-Stuy remains predominantly African-American, its black population has fallen from 64 per cent to 49 per cent from 2015 to 2017, according to the American Community Survey. The white population has more than doubled within the same two years, from 11 per cent to 27 per cent, while the proportions of Hispanics (20 per cent) and Asians (3 per cent) have held steady.
Ruffin and Daniel Fisher, president of the 81st precinct’s community council, think the NYPD’s reluctance is due to budget constraints, especially after it appointed neighborhood coordination officers (NCOs) in 2015 as liaisons between the police and the community. “Block watchers should work hand-in-hand with the NCOs. It will encourage residents to take greater ownership of their living environment,” Fisher says.
But will it work?
Professor John DeCarlo, who studies community policing and is based at the University of New Haven, said successful neighborhood watch groups share two primary characteristics. First, everyone in the community must committed to being vigilant. Second, the political will for the government to work with the community must be present.
“In many cases, because of residential mobility and other factors, there is not enough collective efficacy in a neighborhood for the block watch to take root and work. Another limitation would be a lack of staff, such that the city government is not able to respond adequately to the needs of the community,” says DeCarlo, who chairs the university’s department of criminal justice.
Another expert, assistant Professor Blake Randol from California State University-Stanislaus agreed that sustained commitment from the police and resident volunteers are necessary for such programs to be effective. “If blockwatch programs are implemented effectively, and in conjunction with other community-based policing programs, they can reduce citizen fear of crime. …Blockwatch programs particularly go a long way in terms of improving citizen trust in the police,” says Randol.
Robert Gangi, founder of the Police Reform Organizing Project, says he is skeptical of programs spearheaded by the police. “They tend to have a political agenda, and we know that the NYPD’s policies are often racially biased,” he says. “I have stronger support for grassroots initiatives where neighbors come together to watch out for one another. And there’s no stopping residents from coming up with something like that in their own.”
Brooklyn resident and activist Brian Cunningham agrees that neighborliness helps keep crime at bay. Cunningham, who is also deputy director of anti-gun violence campaign Save Our Streets, said his organization has been appealing to residents to take a stand against violence. After a shooting in Crown Heights last Wednesday, it distributed thousands of text messages and managed gathered 70 neighbors to the scene to “stand against crime.”
Elsewhere in New York City, some resident communities have been starting up their own neighborhood watch groups. For example, in Forest Hills and Bayside, both in Queens, some residents use a voice-activated mobile application to alert their personalized groups of friends and neighbors during emergencies.
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