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How Neighbourhood Watch schemes have boomed since the recession

There has been a 30 per cent increase in Neighbourhood Watch schemes around the country in recent years.

Image: Susan Daly/TheJournal.ie

MANY PEOPLE ARE familiar with the distinctive blue and gold Neighbourhood Watch signs which have been dotted across many streets in Ireland for almost 30 years.

Neighbourhood Watch, which started in Ireland in 1985, runs in around 2,300 towns and areas across Ireland – and, perhaps unexpectedly has been undergoing a significant boom in numbers since the recession kicked in.

Gardaí say they have seen a 30 per cent increase in Neighbourhood Watch schemes as dormant schemes are rejuvenated and new schemes are set up by residents around the country.

The increase seems somewhat paradoxical: it comes at a time when crime is continuing to drop year-on-year across the country, and changing lifestyles mean that people in urban areas are less likely to know their neighbours than they were twenty years ago.

The reasons why the crime prevention scheme has been kick-started over the past three years could be attributed to people who have lost jobs or had working hours cut back looking to do something productive in their neighbourhood; to older people who, statistics show, have an increasing fear of crime, despite the decrease in figures and the unlikelihood that they will be a target; and to a shift in policing approaches which has seen community policing become more important to reduce crime.

Background

When Neighbourhood Watch and the rural version, Community Alert, started in the mid-1980s, policing was undergoing a dramatic change in Ireland.

Gardaí were moving from walking the beat around their area into cars and motorbikes, while at the same time dealing with an increase in the number and types of crimes that were committed.

“Community Alert started as a reaction to attacks on elderly people in rural Ireland, but there was a general perception at the time anyway that communication needed to improve between Gardaí and communities,” explains Sergeant Denis Beakey of An Garda Síochána.

It played an important role in cities at the time. ”There would have been parts of Dublin that would have been in a very difficult situation and suffered a lot of socio-economic disadvantage,” says Sgt Beakey. “With the advent of Neighbourhood Watch schemes it was a good way of making people feel empowered to take on the problems in their areas”.

The scheme doesn’t replace policing but a large part of Neighbourhood Watch is about stopping smaller, preventable crimes by encouraging people to take actions themselves.

“It’s about reducing any opportunities for crime and encouraging people to do what they can to stop smaller crimes” says Sgt Beakey.

Often, this comes down to following basic tips to stop criminals from taking advantage of an opportunity to commit a crime: not leaving valuables in clear sight in a car, for example, ensuring that house doors are locked, and leaving a light on in a house when the occupant is not there.

It’s also about fostering a sense of community in an area. “If people know each other, they’re more likely to act for each other,” says Sgt Beakey.

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Middle class versus working class areas

When Neighbourhood Watch originally began in the 1980s it was almost predominantly a middle-class phenomenon. Housing estates in more affluent areas of Dublin, Cork, Galway and Limerick were faster to take up the idea than disadvantaged areas – despite the disconnect between crime levels.

“It’s more balanced now,” explains Sgt Beakey.

Some working class areas have been very organised in recent years. Ronanstown, Ballyfermot and Tallaght in Dublin have all been very strong; similarly Coolock and Darndale would have a strong tradition of Neighbourhood Watch schemes.

Similarly, many of the schemes run in areas where there may be an increased fear of crime – even if crime rates are actually low in the area.

This is especially true for older people. A Central Statistics Office report into crime found that 40 per cent of people were worried about becoming a victim of crime but that the figure increase significantly for older people – even though older people are also the least likely to be the victims of crime. Just 1.7 per cent of people aged over 65 were victims of crime according to the most recent victimisation survey, compared to almost 9 per cent of 18-24 year olds.

“It’s about social cohesion,” says Sgt Beakey. ”Healthy, vibrant communities are best placed to help protect themselves”.

Previously: Neighbourhood Watch sees town reduce burglaries by 68 per cent >

About the author:

Christine Bohan

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