Victims Of Their Own Success: How Neighbourhood Watch Schemes Can Break Down Once Crime Is Cut

New research finds that the single-issue focus of many neighbourhood watch schemes – the reduction of crime – may create a dilemma in which these programmes can fall victim to their own success.

According to the study by Professors Steffen Huck and Michael Kosfeld, published in the January 2007 Economic Journal, if participation in neighbourhood watch schemes is mainly driven by fear of crime, participation will start to fall once crime levels are reduced. This means that after a short-term decline, burglary rates will eventually rise again.

To get around this dilemma and maintain high participation rates when crime rates are reduced, the authors suggest that a promising strategy is to organise neighbourhood programmes not as mere substitutes for the police but as social initiatives that are characterised by multiple forms of cooperation and help among neighbours.

When a burglar breaks into a house, nobody is in a better position to report the crime to the police than a neighbour, the most likely person to observe suspicious movements or to hear suspicious noise. If called, the police can intervene and the state can prosecute and punish.

But for all practical purposes, the state cannot substitute for the watchful eyes of neighbours.

Successful crime prevention thus depends on the active support and participation of citizens – a fact that is mirrored by the increasing popularity of neighbourhood watch programmes.

The research shows that when citizen participation is important, standard legal policy aiming at high punishments to achieve full deterrence can entail adverse effects on longrun crime rates. Contrary to standard intuition, crime rates can in fact increase with the severity of punishments.

In this study, which analyses the dynamics of neighbourhood watch programmes, the successful deterrence of burglars depends on the prosecution and punishment of burglars – which is in the hands of the state – as well as on the detection and reporting of burglaries – which is in the hands of neighbours.

But neighbours may or may not be willing to report an observed crime to the police. For example, they may have to interrupt what they are doing and might be embarrassed if the alarm turns out to be false. This makes recruitment of new members vital for any neighbourhood watch programme.

Recruitment and participation in neighbourhood watch programmes depend on various factors. One important factor that has been well documented is fear of crime: individuals who worry about crime are typically more likely to participate in neighbourhood watch programmes than individuals who do not do so.

If neighbourhood watch participation is mainly driven by fear of crime, the research shows that neighbourhood watch programmes start to dissolve once crime levels are reduced. While this might sound like good news, it is actually bad news.

The reason is that since neighbour”s monitoring and reporting are essential to maintain deterrence, after a short-term decline, burglary rates will eventually rise again and reach maximum levels in response to the dissolution of the programme.

The authors show that the optimal legal policy in this situation is to set punishments at an intermediate level aiming at a tolerable low crime rate rather than total prevention of crime in order to keep participation in neighbourhood watch programmes active.

”The Dynamics of Neighbourhood Watch and Norm Enforcement” by Steffen Huck and Michael Kosfeld is published in the January 2007 issue of the Economic Journal.

Steffen Huck

020-7679-5895 | s.huck@ucl.ac.uk

Michael Kosfeld

University of Zurich | kosfeld@iew.unizh.ch