What is a Community Watch and What Is It Good For?

What exactly is a community watch? And why should anyone have one?

“It is about knowing your neighbors and knowing who belongs on the block,” said Mason Lee, public safety coordinator for San Francisco SAFE, which stands for Safety Awareness for Everyone. “It’s about communicating with each other and also observing and reporting.”

SAFE organizes community watch groups in the city and county of San Francisco, registers bikes, helps with disaster preparedness and more. It’s a nonprofit and funded by the SFPD.

A community watch is important for educating neighbors about public safety and for keeping people alert and aware in order to prevent crime, Lee said. He’s been working to set up a community watch at the Gateway Apartments and Townhomes, but any community can ask for one, and even neighbors on a block of one street can ask to set up a neighborhood watch.

It is not about walking patrols or spying on people. Instead, it’s about educating neighbors to always be on the lookout for anything that looks amiss, and to call security or the police when they see suspicious or undesirable behavior.

“If you see something, say something,” Lee said.

A community watch also teaches neighbors how to prevent safety issues. For example, in multi-unit buildings, Lee said, no one should ever let anyone in unless they personally know them as a neighbor.

This can be difficult in large buildings, Lee said, but it’s important residents tell their friends to wait for proper access and not “tailgate” into a building behind other residents.

“It’s always a good feeling to know who actually lives in the building and who belongs in the building,” he said. “Create a culture of being aware.”

Setting up a neighborhood watch (for block-by-block areas) or community watch (for larger areas or buildings) requires four things, Lee said.

A leader (block captain) and two co-captains who are responsible for organizing meetings and getting information to neighbors
A map of the block so people can give exact location if they see a suspicious person
A contact list so neighbors can reach each other
An emergency preparedness plan for the block

Also, a neighborhood watch must have at least 50 percent of the neighbors on the contact list. For community watches, this isn’t necessary, but it’s ideal to get as many contacts as possible, Lee said.

The meetings are set up with a specific structure of four to five meetings before a watch is official.

First, a planning meeting is held with neighbors to give a program overview. If needed, a second overview meeting is held with more neighbors.

The next meeting is at the SFPD district station so officers and possibly the captain can listen to neighbors’ concerns.

Following that, a representative from the district supervisors’ office or Department of Public Works will attend, depending on what type of quality of life issues are raised.

At the final meeting, someone with the Neighborhood Emergency Response Team (NERT) gives a presentation on emergency preparedness.

“We want to make sure the neighbors, by the time we finish organizing a block, all know each other,” Lee said. “They talk offline. By the time they’re done organizing, they know each other and the police department.”

To inquire about setting up a community or neighborhood watch, contact SAFE or call 415-553-1984 and ask to speak to Program Director Irina Chatsova.