The once ubiquitous Neighborhood Watch programs, present in Fairfax County neighborhoods for 35 years, are today fighting double-front obstacles for survival in some of the very neighborhoods where they first began.
“Annandale’s Camelot neighborhood was the first neighborhood watch program established in Northern Virginia,” said Fairfax County Master Police Officer J.T. Frey. “It was established in 1979 and it is still active today.”
But according to Frey, who heads the West Springfield District Station Crime Prevention Section, overall the Neighborhood Watch programs are not as numerous as they once were and many are struggling to find a new generation of volunteers to take over.
Neighborhood Watch programs involve many different levels of activity, from passive observation and window watching, to walking and mobile patrols. Participating neighborhoods begin by establishing a Neighborhood Watch Coordinator, who acts as a liaison between the police department and the community. “The coordinator disseminates information from the police department to his or her neighborhood,” said Frey. “Keep in mind that some of these groups do not participate in the walking and mobile patrol aspect but instead adhere to the ‘passive Neighborhood Watch’ approach, but in any case, effective communication between the community and the police creates the baseline for a successful program.”
According to Fairfax County Police statistics, during its heyday during the 1980s and early 1990s, Neighborhood Watch programs aided police in reducing residential burglaries countywide by nearly 60 percent during a period of population growth that brought a quarter-million new residents.
Police say that Neighborhood Watch programs during that period also contributed to substantial declines in thefts of property, vandalism, fraud, sexual assaults and even traffic-related offenses. Neighborhood Watch programs were even credited for reductions in crime in nearby commercial areas, churches and schools.
But today, many of the active neighborhood programs have withered away.
“There are about 450 neighborhoods in the West Springfield district alone,” Frey said. “But right now there are only about 100 that actively participate, and only about 25 percent of those are doing walking or mobile patrols. A lot of neighborhoods say they were active 20 years ago, but they have let their programs go by the wayside. And for whatever reason, the younger crowd doesn’t want to get involved. That seems to be par across the board.”
Doug Hottel, Neighborhood Watch Coordinator for Burke’s Kings Park West neighborhood, agrees.
“We can always use more volunteers, but it is certainly more difficult to get young people,” he said.
Frey said police have tried to recruit younger participants by beefing up their presence on social networking sites such as Facebook, but haven’t so far seen a lot of interest.
On another front, at least one neighborhood that is trying to start a Neighborhood Watch program is facing a new obstacle.
Corazon Sandoval Foley, of Burke’s Edgewater community, says she is meeting with resistance from members of her own neighborhood who wonder about the liability issues of starting a Neighborhood Watch program.
“Our Edgewater community has tried and failed to establish a Neighborhood Watch program,” she said.
“What was supposed to be a simple program to support our police department has become a more complex issue because of the fallout from the Trayvon Martin case.
A neighbor raised the following concern,” she said, explaining that in the 2012 Florida case where Neighborhood Watch coordinator George Zimmerman shot and killed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, Zimmerman’s HOA later settled a wrongful death lawsuit with the Martin family. “My neighbor asked me if our board had given any thought to any possible liability to our HOA, and whether we had enough insurance to do this and if our premiums go up.”
Foley said she was taken aback by the concern, and plans to address the issue at a Nov. 5 meeting of the West Springfield Citizen’s advisory Committee at the West Springfield District Station.
“I can tell you that this is the first time I’ve ever heard that one,” said Frey. “But I will be there.”