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Feb 21

Keeping Your Neighborhoods Safe

Posted on February 21, 2017 at 9:06 AM by Jamie Bastas

As our society has changed in terms of social interaction, collectively we also need to change our behaviors in terms of crime prevention and community wellness.

In the “good old days”, relationships among neighbors were very strong. As a kid, my father always warned me that if I got in trouble either in school or in the neighborhood, he had fully empowered everyone to discipline me accordingly, and I’d get it twice as bad when I got home! Note, even way back then, we weren’t talking about corporal punishment, I didn’t get beatings, it was effective and appropriate discipline meted out with care. In turn, many times I heard my dad’s booming voice yelling at other kids in the neighborhood when they were about to ride their bike out into the street at risk of getting hit by a car or tossing a ball perilously close to someone’s window. In short, everyone looked out for everybody else, and low crime was the outcome of it all.

In 2000, Robert Putnam published a book called Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. In it, he described “…how we have become increasingly disconnected from family, friends, neighbors, and our democratic structures…”. He observed that our society’s isolationism even extended to social activity, such as the fact that even though more Americans were bowling than ever before, bowling leagues were dying as more folks went “bowling alone.” I can only imagine how Putnam would write an updated version today, with the further social isolationism that has resulted from ubiquitous smartphones, social media, on-line gaming, etc.

A few years ago, when our youngest still lived at home, she once texted me asking what time dinner was….from her bedroom while I was in the kitchen! Rather than return the text, I walked to her bedroom and answered the question, and told her, next time just come ask. Since then, I’ve watched as young couples on a date barely speak, instead playing games and texting with each other while seated adjacent. It is as if the art of conversation is going the route of league bowling.

Criminals who prey on neighborhoods exploit this level of social isolationism. They know that all too often, one neighbor doesn’t know the next, what cars belong and what people are regularly seen there. They know that people are very unlikely to confront them if they boldly try to open a window to gain entry, or move from car to car on a street looking for unlocked doors (for which there are often an abundance).

In spite of the evolution of American society towards a more individualistic orientation, some neighborhoods have sustained a sense of synergy and community well-being. Not surprisingly, those that do tend sense lower crime rates and enjoy an overall higher perception of safety and security. Ultimately, the relationships within a neighborhood cannot be defined or mandated by local police or any level of government for that matter; it is truly up to residents to decide what kinds of interactions and relationship they’re going to have with their neighbors. But, the Newport News Police Department has services and ideas to help any neighborhood that desires to increase the level of synergy and interaction among neighbors towards the goal of increasing community safety.

Neighborhood Watch is a tried and true method that has been around for many years, but its premise is still strong. Block-by-block, a designated “block captain” takes on some responsibility for keeping information flowing to the rest of their neighbors about important topics like target hardening, crime prevention, and data from the PD about crime events in their surrounding area. Some neighborhoods even organize Neighborhood Watch Patrols wherein trained volunteers make observations while they walk their dog or push the stroller, looking out for potential threats to the peace of the neighborhood. Note that these are usually not geared towards crimes in progress, but more to quality of life concerns that are not emergencies. For crimes in progress, Neighborhood Watch has a good record of educating residents HOW to best call for the police, WHAT information the police will need, WHEN to call, and HOW to be a good witness. In Newport News, we also have a Coalition in which Neighborhood Watch groups across the city come together and have periodic meetings and an annual gathering to provide ongoing education.

Reflecting the modern times use of social media, in Newport News we’ve also embraced the use of a website and app that is tailored to neighborhoods: Nextdoor. (www.nextdoor.com) I jokingly refer to Nextdoor as Facebook for neighborhoods! It is a way to organize and increase neighborhood awareness and information exchange, and users can set it up to receive information strictly limited to their neighborhood, or to specify which adjacent neighborhoods to also receive information from. The NNPD social media coordinator and the City’s communication department regularly use Nextdoor to push important announcements and information out to our residents in a very timely manner. For example, if a storm hits and will delay trash pickup on your street, that information is likely to be posted on your neighborhood’s Nextdoor page. Nextdoor isn’t perfect; sometimes folks use it as if it was Facebook and it can start to digress into personal opinions on issues that may or may not be of interest to all in the neighborhood. But, the filtering system is easy to use, allowing one to block a particular message stream if they’re disinterested in a topic. On the upside, it provides a direct link from neighbor to neighbor on important information including suspicious activity and crime updates, to improve the chances of increasing community safety. Users can also send direct messages to our Department using the private messaging feature or the ‘send to police’ feature. Our social media coordinator will then distribute those messages to the appropriate precinct or division.

The change described in Bowling Alone is a real thing. It can be very discouraging when our Department hosts a community meeting and gears up for 1000 attendees (a tiny fraction of residents for a city of over 180,000 population) and instead we get a couple hundred. For two years we’ve had an organized process that has become known as C.R.I.M.E. (Creating Responsibility in My Environment) that resulted in several work groups each focusing on specific goals for our community in reducing crime and increasing quality of life. We have held 3 or 4 community-wide meetings to increase community engagement in the process, and while the bad news is that attendance is nowhere near the capacity we have to include folks, the good news is that the quantity is made up for in the quality of the community members who have stepped up and participated. The same could be said about Neighborhood Watch; we could easily double the number of watch blocks involved in our programs, but we DO have many quality block clubs that are doing outstanding work, so many, in fact, that I can’t begin to get to all of the National Night Out events held each summer by the many groups.

If you’d like to become involved in a C.R.I.M.E. group or for more information, visit: https://www.nnva.gov/1908/CRIME-Project or visit the CRIME Initiative Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/CRIMEInitiative/.

If you’d like information on Neighborhood Watch in Newport News, visit https://www.nnva.gov/384/Neighborhood-Watch-Coalition. From that site you can review booklets and learn more about starting a Neighborhood Watch group in your neighborhood. If you have any questions, feel free to contact our Community Programs Unit at 757-928-4295.

To see if your neighborhood is on Nextdoor, go to https://nextdoor.com/city/newport-news--va/ or to sign your neighborhood up for a Nextdoor site, visits www.nextdoor.com. You can follow the Newport News Police Department on NextDoor by visiting https://nextdoor.com/agency-detail/va/newport-news/newport-news-police-department/.