The death of Trayvon Martin at the hands of self-styled neighbourhood watch captain George Zimmerman has unduly tarnished the reputation of this institution.
The idea that there are “captains” and presumably privates to take orders from them, is not what neighborhood watch is all about. It is first and foremost a community organisation, one which requires a community spirit, not a Sherlock Holmes much less a Dirty Harry type mentality.
The genesis of the movement can be traced to the rape and murder of a young woman in New York. Kitty Genovese was the manageress of a bar; one night in March 1964, after finishing work she drove home and was attacked by a psycho named Winston Moseley. He stabbed her, raped her and robbed her. She died in the ambulance on the way to hospital.
The case caused more outrage over the apparent non-reaction of numerous witnesses than due to its being a particularly heinous crime. In the 19th Century, Charles Mackay published a book about the madness of crowds. The murder of Kitty Genovese raised a contrary issue, the apathy of crowds, it led also to the identification of a new psychological phenomenon: the Bystander Effect.
It is clear now that the people who witnessed this murder were not necessarily being callous or indifferent. The reality is that the smaller the crowd, the more likely are people to respond - allowing for the non-presence of police officers, etc.
The really positive development from this crime though was the development of neighborhood watch. There had of course been watches before, but this idea transcends law enforcement, which except in emergency situations should always be left to law enforcement, though if anyone told George Zimmerman, he didn’t hear.
By 1972, the program was underway, and soon spread to other countries.
In the UK, both the Home Office and the police at local level are involved with the scheme, the remit of which does not see clowns with guns in their belts patrolling the streets, rather it includes dispensing advice for personal safety - including fire safety; home security, and simply keeping an eye out either for suspicious characters or for elderly people who may need assistance.
Below is what might be called the happy face of neighbourhood watch, from Australia.
The happy face of neighbourhood watch - complete with Anglicised spelling - from Australia.
[The above article was first published July 30, 2013.]
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