Watch Out for Neighborhood Watch Programs

Last month in our post on community associations and squatters, one of the recommendations I listed was for an associate to initiate a neighborhood watch program. Coincidentally, a few days later, I read that the homeowners association where Trayvon Martin was tragically killed by a neighborhood watch captain is facing a likely lawsuit from the family of the 13 year-old gunned down on a street in the association.

The controversial and tragic death of the Florida teen is a stark reminder of the care a community association should take in implementing a neighborhood watch program. To eliminate tragedy, reduce legal liability and ensure a successful program, a community association may wish to take the following steps:

  1. Contact the local police department and ask their community support officer to meet with the association. In addition to providing general tips on establishing neighborhood watch programs, the police representative may give community-specific information and insights. While speaking, the officer may also provide anti-crime tips to assist individual homeowners.
  2. Establish written guidelines for the program. Work with the association's attorney in coming up with these procedures. Among other items, the guidelines should emphasize minimizing conflict and confrontation.
  3. Ensure program participants are not armed with weapons. A cell phone and camera ordinarily are the only equipment needed for protection.
  4. Criminal background checks should be conducted on all program participants. Local police departments or state agencies offer inexpensive background options.
  5. Contact the association's insurance company to verify insurance coverage for the program. Many community association insurers have risk management departments that offer helpful information on establishing neighborhood watch programs.
  6. The association's board of directors or professional manager should review the program at set intervals to ensure it is being conducted in compliance with the written guidelines.

A community association must understand the purpose of neighborhood watch programs. Volunteer homeowners are not intended to stop crime--that job is for the police. Watch programs are most successful in deterring crime by providing a watchful eye and vigilant documenting of suspicious behavior. If a crime is being observed, the watch members should dial 9-1-1 and avoid confrontation.

Residential communitites often have the best intentions in adopting neighborhood watch programs. An association should ensure effective safeguards are in place to eliminate unnecessary liability and potential tragedy.

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