Is community surveillance a good or bad thing?
Community surveillance—in one form or another—has long been a prevalent solution for ensuring neighborhood safety. And today, traditional neighborhood watch programs are bolstered by technological advances, leading to more than 25,000 active groups, according to the National Neighborhood Watch program. (1)
Keeping a watchful eye on our homes and communities has never been easier. With modern technology at our fingertips, we can work with neighbors to keep our loved ones safe.
But does community surveillance do more harm than good?
Let's explore its pros and cons and implications for society as a whole. Then, we'll discuss practical and ethical measures for protecting your home and community.
What is community surveillance and how does it work?
Community surveillance refers to the collective monitoring of suspicious activities in a neighborhood. It involves paying attention to surroundings and reporting potential criminal behavior.
People participate in community watch programs in many ways, but these are some of their approaches:
- Posting alerts to popular social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram
- Sharing updates in an app like Ring's Neighbors
- Checking on neighbors and talking to each other in person
How can community surveillance benefit neighborhoods?
As humans, we need to feel safe and secure in our homes and surroundings. One way to achieve this is through community surveillance, which can contribute to a safer and more welcoming community.
Stronger sense of security
Community surveillance can foster a stronger sense of security by deterring would-be criminals. Neighbors look out for one another, report suspicious activities, and contact authorities. In many cases, this prevents crimes from happening in the first place.
Studies have found that 83% of burglars look for security cameras before attempting a break-in. Additionally, 60% of them go elsewhere if they see a security system. (2) These statistics prove that criminals are less likely to commit crimes when they know others are watching.
Besides keeping offenders away, community surveillance can help people feel more connected. Residents build stronger bonds by looking after the community.
Going on vacation? Let your neighbors know so they can look after your home and notify you if something doesn't seem right.
Reduced fear of crime
A solid community surveillance initiative can reduce the fear of crime among residents. (3) When people feel safe in their neighborhoods, they're more likely to engage in outdoor activities, participate in community events, take ownership of their surroundings, and socialize with neighbors.
In this instance, a neighborhood watch can create a more vibrant and peaceful community.
When it comes to lowering crime in your neighborhood, the more people joining forces, the better.
Community surveillance means you and your neighbors are working toward a common goal. Everyone has a unique role. When you get to know your neighbors and their routines, you notice when something isn't right (and vice versa). This connection empowers people to act quickly and get help when needed.
Are there drawbacks to community surveillance?
For many, the idea of "community surveillance" may seem like a no-brainer for neighborhood safety. But while the intention may be to protect the community it's essential to recognize the potential drawbacks.
One major concern about community surveillance is the potential for discrimination. Surveillance systems may target certain groups—particularly those who are already marginalized.
Campaign director at civil rights organization Media Justice Myaisha Hayes expresses that community surveillance apps like Nextdoor and Neighbors "are dangerous because they not only reflect people's biases about marginalized people but [they] legitimize that bias as an effective guide for addressing crime." (4)
She further emphasizes that they encourage the same kind of racial profiling as traditional neighborhood watch programs: "Given the murder of Trayvon Martin, this bias can have life-threatening consequences for Black and brown people who may be passing through your neighborhood."
When it comes to surveillance, people may be more likely to employ extra security measures in areas with certain ethnic or socioeconomic groups. In turn, there's more scrutiny and policing of those communities. This can harbor mistrust among community members and worsen existing inequalities.
In theory, surveillance systems should foster a safe and comfortable community. But in some cases, they end up doing the opposite, raising a culture of fear and mistrust.
When used without proper care, surveillance systems can reinforce stereotypes and biases. (5) They're more likely to target specific groups, such as people of color, or people who look "suspicious."
Senior correspondent at Vox, Rani Molla, argues that despite violent crime in the US going down, people don't realize it because they're using apps like Nextdoor, Amazon Ring's Neighbors, and Citizen—all of which instill fear in people even when danger isn't imminent. For example, someone in a "dark hoodie" under a bridge may make someone feel paranoid about potential crime nearby. This citizen may then share their observation with neighbors on one or more of these apps, fueling a vicious cycle of violence and fear. (6)
Finally, surveillance footage can also get misinterpreted or used out of context. Then, false accusations circulate, which can lead to wrongful arrests. These consequences make community members feel unwelcome and even harassed.
Another potential downside of community surveillance is marginalizing already-vulnerable communities.
For instance, affluent areas likely have robust surveillance systems in place. But impoverished neighborhoods may not have access to the same level of protection. Disadvantaged communities tend to have less solidarity, making them easy targets for burglaries. (7)
Fortunately, the advent of DIY home security systems has made home security more accessible to everyone in recent years, regardless of income level. These systems have democratized home security, empowering people to take control of their safety without breaking the bank. The availability of easy-to-install and user-friendly devices means that even those without technical know-how can keep their families safe.
Neighborhood watch: Socioeconomic factors to consider
When it comes to neighborhood safety, there are factors to consider beyond the pros and cons. Socioeconomic factors, in particular, can make or break community surveillance.
The reality is, not all communities have the same access to resources. Some may face unique challenges in implementing and maintaining effective safety measures.
Consider these key socioeconomic factors:
Increased police presence
Having a neighborhood watch program can invite a police presence into the neighborhood. Some may view this as a great step toward promoting security—and it can.
But it can also increase policing of certain communities that are already over-policed. Often, this alienates community members such as people of color or low-income families.
An economist at NYU's Wagner Graduate School of Public Service, Morgan Williams, focuses on researching the economics of crime and racial inequality. He suggests that some cities are worse off with more police presence: "We're getting plenty of policing, but it might not always be the type of policing that keeps people safe."
His observation shows in the South and Midwest, where there are large populations of Black people. Citizens in these regions often don't experience the same policing benefits as other areas. Police have long arrested people of color for low-level crimes, which ultimately damages lives more than it improves public safety. (8)
Invasiveness of surveillance technology
Surveillance systems today range from simple cameras to advanced technologies. The latter can have negative implications.
For example, facial recognition technology may be racially biased and inaccurate. (9) In the context of community surveillance, people may be accused of things they didn't do and may even get arrested.
Moreover, surveillance monitoring can be intrusive without consent—and this intrusion can be commonplace today, considering the ubiquity of doorbell cameras and other surveillance tools.
Everyone deserves to feel free in their homes and communities. Setting boundaries and expectations with neighbors can mitigate insecurity in the community.
Do your part to keep your community safe
Community surveillance can elevate public safety, protect homes and families, and help deter and catch criminals. But it can also be invasive, expensive, and abused.
When used with ethics in mind, though, it can reduce crime and boost accountability.
Residents must play an active role to ensure neighborhood watch efforts benefit everyone.
Do your part to ensure ethical community safety:
- Advocate for transparency, accountability, and sensitivity to community needs
- Listen and learn from neighbors
- Collaborate to create a safer and more inclusive community
We have the power to make our communities pleasant and safe—so what are you waiting for?
Get to know neighbors. Join the HOA board. Take part in community meetings. Speak up when something seems off.
These are just some of the many things we can do to make a positive impact.
Sharon Wu is a Contributing Writer for Switchful with 8 years of experience covering home security and technology. With a background in research and content marketing, she helps people find the best products and services, tailored to their needs. Sharon is committed to providing accurate, resourceful, and digestible content to her readers. When not sharing her expertise, she enjoys spending time with her pugs and attending European car shows.
Eric Paulsen is a writer, editor, and strategist who has been creating content in the B2B, healthcare, FinTech, home security, and government sectors for more than five years. He holds an MFA in creative writing and lets everyone in his life hang that over his head. When he doesn’t have his hands deep in some piece of content, he’s either watching baseball or praying for the offseason to end quickly.
Endnotes and sources
- "Celebrating the Success of 40 Years of Neighborhood Watch," National Neighborhood Watch. Accessed 21 March 2023.
- "Surprising Home Burglary Facts And Stats," Forbes. Accessed 21 March 2023.
- "Neighborhood Watch Manual," USAonWatch. Accessed 28 March 2023.
- "Are video doorbells and neighborhood watch apps generating more fear than security?" CBS News. Accessed 28 March 2023.
- "Neighborhood crime apps stoke fears, reinforce racist stereotypes, and trick people into performing police surveillance," The Appeal. Accessed 28 March 2023.
- "The rise of fear-based social media like Nextdoor, Citizen, and now Amazon’s Neighbors," Vox. Accessed 28 March 2023.
- "Why disadvantaged neighborhoods are more attractive targets for burgling than wealthy ones," LSE. Accessed 28 March 2023.
- "When You Add More Police To A City, What Happens?" Planet Money on NPR. Accessed 28 March 2023.
- "Government's Use of Facial Recognition Under Scrutiny," AARP. Accessed 28 March 2023.