With crime an everyday part of our lives, residents are taking back their streets by forming neighbourhood watches. Here’s how to get started.
You’ve seen the news and you’ve read the articles. You’re frustrated and possibly scared, and you want to do something to protect your family and your investment from crime. You’d never dream of taking the law into your own hands, of course - but you’re ready to do your part because, as economist Paul Collier put it in his book, The Bottom Billion, “You are a citizen, and citizenship carries responsibilities.”
General manager at Allsound Security in Knysna, Ashley Boetius, who actively participated in developing the neighbourhood watch in a suburb in which she previously lived, and who now acts as the liaison between her company and about ten neighbourhood watches in the town, said that the process usually begins when a rise in crime in a particular area - often a single street or part of a suburb - prompts a response from concerned residents.
“It’s about the decision to take some level of responsibility, and about acknowledging that the police and security companies can’t be there 24/7,” she said: “The people who live and work in the area know the area best.”
Once you’ve got a group of people together, said Ashley, it’s best to elect a leader - a champion - “who ideally needs to have time on their hands - and lots of enthusiasm.”
You’ll also need to start building a database of concerned residents, because, as Ashley pointed out, success will depend on good communications - both internally, and externally with organisations like the South African Police Service (SAPS) and the security companies.
“You’ll need to set up a constitution so that you can register with the local Community Police Forum* - which you should be happy to do anyway, because you’re going to need the police’s cooperation down the line.
“It’s also essential to develop good working relationships with your SAPS sector manager, as well as with any security companies that have vehicles in the area - because they’re going to be your support when a problem arises.”
The most visible part of the neighbourhood watch’s job, of course, is being visible, and this is achieved by organising night-time patrols which are manned by volunteers from the neighbourhood. This isn’t as onerous as it sounds: in Ashley’s first neighbourhood watch, which had 185 members, it meant one three-hour shift once a month for each of the 55 people who volunteered to patrol.
Patrollers drive around the neighbourhood in their own, private vehicles, but each shift is issued with a kit bag that contains a log book, pepper spray, and a clip board - “So that you can easily make notes of the registration numbers, make, model, and any distinguishing dents or marks of any suspicious vehicles.” (These bags are passed from shift to shift, and stored during the day at a central point - often the 24-hour convenience store at a local garage.)
Ashley stressed that patrollers have to know that their personal safety comes first: “The idea is not to confront a suspicious-looking person, but to be a presence, and to report suspicious behaviour.”
She said that patrollers are required to write a report at the end of every shift - both for record-keeping purposes, and so that shifts can inform one-another of what’s happened in the area over the preceding hours or days.
“Neighbourhood watches work,” she said: in the example of the first neighbourhood watch she joined, “we had as many as ten incidents a week at the peak of crime - but this fell to one or two incidents a month thanks to the presence of the patrols.”
“It’s all about communications, and about improving communications all the time,” said Allsound’s Declan Nurse.
“We started out with emails and phone numbers, and progressed to SMSs and Whatsapp groups - but with the roll-out of a new service called OurHood - www.ourhood.co.za - we’ll be able to share information even more quickly and accurately, which will make all of South Africa’s neighbourhood watches even more effective than ever.”
And that, of course, will mean that everyone will be able to sleep better at night. Well, everyone except the guys and girls who’re out there, voluntarily watching our backs...
*Community police forums are established under the South African Police Service Act (68 of 1995) - for an overview of how they came into being, and how they operate, see Barbara Ludman’s How Community Policing works.