JIS News

Faced with increasing dormancy among neighbourhood watch groups across the island, the Police say the National Secretariat will be doubling its effort this year to rebrand and strengthen the programme.
Co-ordinator of the programme, Sergeant Barrington Brown of the Police Community Relations Department, tells JIS News that coming out of its annual National Conference last November, members of the citizen-based group, which represents Neighbourhood Watches across the island, identified seven areas that will be addressed, as well as measures to revive the 20 year-old programme that seems to be dying in many communities.
“The National Secretariat was established by the Council two years ago to look at the programme nationally. They have gone through the island and looked at a number of issues. Out of last year’s conference, the Secretariat came up with seven objectives. These include: strengthening the relationship between neighbourhood watches, improving the relationship between the police and citizens, leadership training, engaging the youth in the movement, building partnerships and linkages with stakeholders, and rebranding the whole Neighbourhood Watch Movement to make it more attractive to the public,” he informs.
Sergeant Brown tells JIS News that currently, 516 neighbourhood watches are on the register. “But, of that amount I would say that half is dormant,” he says. He attributes the trend to a breakdown in personal relationships on one hand, and the success that the programme has had in reducing crime in the community, on the other.
He suggests that selfishness is the major contributor to the general malaise. “The programme was put in place to arrest crime in the communities and has done that, so people, having solved their crime problem, become complacent, so some resort to their old selfish ways. So, for some reason that caused a level of dormancy,” he argues.
The Neighbourhood Watch Programme, which had its inception in 1987, was first instituted in the Marl Road community in St. Andrew.
According to Sergeant Brown, the programme was implemented as a result of an upsurge in crime at that time.
Searching for a solution, then late Commissioner, Herman Ricketts saw the need to send Superintendent of Police, Neville Wheatley to England to learn of some strategies, he recalls. Superintendent Wheatley returned with the concept, and shortly after the programme was implemented nationwide.
“It was mainly for people to knit themselves, to prevent themselves from being affected by crime,” Sergeant Brown explains.
He notes that the success of the programme, which encouraged Jamaicans to be neighbourly and take an interest in their communities, rides on this fundamental principle. “It would require for residents to get rid of selfishness. It would require a level of commitment,” he emphasizes. The programme also encourages residents to be vigilant and report criminal or sinister activities to the police. “Rather than turn a blind eye, he or she should alert somebody or call the police,” Sergeant Brown says. The Co-ordinator points out that community signs indicating the presence of the programme have discouraged many criminals, who then “take their business. elsewhere. So it is this level of crime free situation within the community that has caused this level of dormancy,” he adds.
Communities with active neighbourhood watch programmes have very low, if any crime at all, he tells JIS News. “Once people bond themselves and say we are going to keep you criminals out, then they are crime free. There are some communities with watches that have crime, because they (have) become complacent, because the selfishness has crept back. But once that starts to happen, we find that they call the local police and request that the programme be re-implemented. So we are doing that,” Sergeant Brown says.
In spite of the prevailing dormancy in many communities, he insists that the programme remains a priority for the police. The programme is driven by the Community Relations departments in police divisions islandwide. An incentive scheme has been established to encourage groups to remain active, the Co-ordinator notes. In December of each year, divisions compete for a trophy for most active neighbourhood watches. “We look at all the things they have done throughout the year. For the past two years, the St. Mary division has been very active and they have won the trophy two years in a row,” he informs.
Active neighbourhood watches do not only score high marks for maintaining crime-free records, but for community involvement as well. He cites their involvement in breakfast programmes for golden agers, adoption of schools, and homework programmes.
Sergeant Brown highlights Bonny Gate in St. Mary, one of Jamaica’s crime free communities, as one successful model of the neighbourhood watch programme.
Last year the community’s neighbourhood watch came in for commendation from the St. Mary police as an example of what a good relationship between the police and citizens can do in reducing crime. Inspector Michael Garrick of the Port Maria police, while addressing a neighbourhood watch meeting in Bonny Gate in July last year, described the community, which had no reported crimes for the year, as one of the “calmest districts in St. Mary, and an excellent example for other communities to emulate.”
He saluted the neighbourhood watch for the commendable role it was playing to keep the community safe and encouraged residents to always devise methods to enhance their efforts at keeping criminals out of their community, and to make every effort to ensure that conflicts are resolved peacefully.
While recognizing the efforts of some neighbourhood watches like Bonny Gate, the police working with the National Secretariat have decided to turn their attention to the weaker links in the system.
“We have developed a National Secretariat because what we have found is that some groups are relying heavily on the police to keep their watch going,” Sergeant Brown says.
He notes that some groups have not established their own footing. “They would want the police to be at every meeting. They would want the police to say you can do this to stay alive. and we are saying, No. As a community, you have all the resources in the community. We are saying you can bond yourself. Keep your regular meetings, think of projects and programmes outside of crime prevention that can even impact on crime prevention, and then meet as a community and you discuss and you implement this programme,” he emphasizes.
Strong leadership tops the list for an effective and active neighbourhood watch. “It must have strong leadership. It must have an executive body that is willing and committed to drive the movement,” advises the Co-ordinator.
He also recommends the appointment of a Crime Panel, made up of persons who are trustworthy, honest and professional. He suggests that residents who are from any of the professional groups, teachers, lawyers, nurses, and others, be selected for this committee.
Sergeant Brown says the role of this panel will be to examine the crime situation in the area, receive reports from citizens in the community, maintain confidentiality and share information with their local police. A police officer from the local police station is usually assigned to the neighbourhood watch.
In most communities, subscribers to neighbourhood watch programmes implement an agreed alert system. Pot covers and whistles are the systems most groups used in the past and still use, to a large extent. “We tell them about an alarm system. We know that criminals don’t like to operate in noise, so we encourage them to have a system, so that if someone is being affected, they can trigger off an alarm that will alert all the neighbours. By triggering that alarm, a number of persons will take up their phone and call the police. So the police will get several calls about an incident and make a speedier response,” he tells JIS News.
As times change, residents in more upscale communities who can afford it, are opting for more modern electronic alarm systems, “so we encourage the private security to sell their products to these neighbourhood watches,” Sergeant Brown informs.
Neighbourhood watch groups are also encouraged to set up Victim Support Schemes to support victims of crimes. “When someone falls victim to a crime, the scheme would be in place to help the victim to cushion the blow. This would include selecting from within groups a nurse and/or a doctor. Where there is none, they would look at outside help. If they do hire someone, this would be at the community’s expense, as a last resort,” he tells JIS News. Neighbourhood watch groups can also provide support for bereaved family members, and attend court with victims.
For communities without a neighbourhood watch programme, this can be initiated by the police or citizens who observe an increase in criminal activities in their communities. Sergeant Brown encourages residents to have a meeting before approaching their local police, so as to gain consensus for the programme.
Support is always available from the police, likewise mechanisms to sustain the neighbourhood watches, the Co-ordinator assures. Once such mechanism in place is the Divisional Council, one of which exists in each parish. The chief Co-ordinator of each neighbourhood watch in the division/parish retains a seat on this council and members meet once per month. At this meeting, they look at the Neighbourhood Watch Movement within the parish for the month, and formulate strategies to strengthen relationships and linkages among residents and with stakeholders, Sergeant Brown says.

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