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Neighborhood Walking Guide

  People are intimidated by crime in my neighborhood.

If crime is a problem in your neighborhood, then people may be afraid to walk in your neighborhood. Fortunately, there are a number of ways that you can address this fear and make your neighborhood a pleasant and safe environment in which to live and walk. Two studies, one by the National Institute of Justice and one by the National Crime Prevention Council (NCPC), point to several specific ways that neighborhoods can decrease crime and take back their streets. Though each neighborhood has its own unique set of issues relating to crime, you can read through the list below to see what measures would be best for your neighborhood to take:

Work with your neighbors
• Influence city or town officials
• Develop prevention and treatment programs
• Deny criminals access to public places

Work with the police and the legal system
• Record information about criminal or suspicious activities in your neighborhood
• Contact the police as soon as you see or hear of a crime
• Be involved with court proceedings
• Take legal action

Approaches for specific problems
• Address loitering and panhandling issues
• Put a stop to graffiti and vandalism
• Install dawn to dusk lights and report street light outages to city and town officials
• Report scary dogs

Other approaches
• Debunk the fear
• Be street smart
• Educate the media
• Prevent crime through better neighborhood design


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Work with your neighbors
Get to know your neighbors and ask for their help in making your neighborhood a safer place to live and walk. Get to know and encourage the children in your neighborhood. Many young people say that carrying weapons gives them a sense of power, a sense you can help them get in far better and more positive ways. If there's a family facing problems in your neighborhood, reach out in friendship and support. Sometimes people just need to know that they can talk to someone who's concerned. Offer to take on routine chores, to baby-sit, to provide transportation, or just to listen. Identify or notify church or community agencies that can help the family.

With your neighbors, join or create a neighborhood advocacy group. Neighborhood organizations, through their activities, can help neighborhoods rebuild social control and increase citizen accountability for the actions of residents and their children. Take advantage of "safety in numbers" to hold rallies, marches, and other group activities to show you are determined to drive out crime and drugs. Start, join, or reactivate a Neighborhood Watch or Citizen Patrol group. Groups often get started through neighborhood meetings, rallies, and school or community events. For the official manual (PDF format, 487k) on creating a Neighborhood Watch group from the National Sheriff's Association, click here.

Work with public agencies and other organizations on solving common problems in a constructive manner. Don't be shy about letting your city or town officials, business groups, or other civic organizations know what your neighborhood needs. Churches, synagogues, mosques, and temples as well as private businesses and schools can be recruited to help combat crime and recruit volunteers for neighborhood-based programs. Many communities have information and referral services that keep extensive records of the government and non-government groups that can help address neighborhood issues. These are usually listed in the telephone directory or can be found on the internet. United Way and similar groups often operate referral services. Local taxpayer and civic associations can often provide information, too.

You need to determine the most important issues facing your neighborhood. Door-to-door surveys can serve to both gather information and build neighborhood outreach efforts. For organizing a group in a multicultural neighborhood, the NCPC suggests having translators and material printed in a variety of languages on hand at meetings and get-togethers. It is important to include all the members of your neighborhood, or representatives of these members, to make progress.
    Influence city or town officials
    A well-organized neighborhood wields powerful influence when addressing the needs and problems of local residents, especially in local political decisions. This needs to be accomplished in a positive and constructive manner. A group of organized citizens are more likely to get a response from city or town agencies than individual citizens or police officers. Neighborhood organizations can request meetings with mayors, police commissioners, city or town managers, or city or town council members to support effective community policing practices and to get criminals out of your building or neighborhood by enforcing anti-noise laws, housing codes, health and fire codes, anti-nuisance laws, and drug-free clauses in rental leases. When a neighborhood group mobilizes on an issue, the city or town will take the request seriously. A group representing the entire neighborhood will have the stability, credibility and political clout necessary to be an effective force in improving their neighborhood.

    Develop prevention and treatment programs
    Community groups can draw on private and public resources as well as their own "people power" to establish youth centers; mentoring, tutoring, or parenting projects; and Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, or other substance abuse prevention or treatment programs for neighborhood residents. Develop and share a phone list of local organizations that can provide counseling, job training, guidance, and other services that neighbors might need.

    Deny criminals access to public spaces
    No matter how dedicated community policing officers are, they cannot be everywhere all the time. Work with other residents to establish safe conditions in your neighborhood-a physical environment that doesn't invite crime or offer opportunities for violence to brew. With a group of neighbors, scan streets, yards, alleys, playgrounds, ball fields, parks, and other areas. Conduct anti-drug patrols and initiate a neighborhood block watch group and get-togethers in your neighborhood, in apartment buildings, and along school routes. Work with schools to establish drug-free, gun-free zones; work with recreation officials to do the same for parks. Often police agencies will loan blockwatch or other neighborhood watch organizations radios or cell phones that can automatically call 911 or a police dispatcher when a problem is observed.

Work with the police and the legal system
Build a partnership with police, focused on solving problems instead of reacting to crises. Input from the community provides important opportunities to learn of criminal activity, which increases the likelihood of an arrest. There is also little doubt that community policing has a sizable impact on suppressing some crimes by developing community ties to identify problems before they become crimes and obtaining critical intelligence information on potential or actual crimes. An informed, organized, and involved community can work with police to identify and implement solutions to community problems.

Citizens not only have unique knowledge of their own community but also may have skills and contacts that facilitate problem solving. Check to see if your city or town, like other cities or towns around the country, has a program that provides radios to neighborhood residents to contact the police or cell phones to automatically dial 911.

As soon as you or hear of a crime being committed, contact the police. Be sure you know where and how to report potentially violent situations or conditions that could lead to violence. Ask your police department or your community policing officer for help in identifying what to report, when, to whom, and how. More aggressive or targeted police tactics can have a sizable effect on suppressing some crimes. Accordingly, more alert citizens and calls to the police when crimes occur will increase police presence in any given area. Make it possible for neighbors to report suspicious activity or crimes without fear of retaliation. This can be accomplished by using a system of anonymous tips to the police and by making sure the criminals are fairly punished.

Citizens often help by gathering information or becoming the eyes and ears of the police. Community organizations can organize community meetings on how to safely provide police with useful information (license plate numbers, detailed descriptions, addresses where suspicious activities occur, brand names of street drugs, and code signals used to alert drug dealers of police presence). Radios or cell phones that automatically dial 911 can be distributed to community leaders.
    Record information about criminal or suspicious activities in your neighborhood
    Citizens often help by gathering information. Community organizations can organize community meetings on how to safely provide police with useful information (license plate numbers, detailed descriptions, addresses where suspicious activities occur, brand names of street drugs, and code signals used to alert drug dealers of police presence). Standard forms for recording information can also be distributed.

    Contact police as soon as you see or hear of a crime
    Thefts, assaults, or drug-deals that are not reported to the police allow criminals to go free to commit their crimes again. Be sure you know where and how to report dangerous or violent situations in your neighborhood, or conditions that could lead to violence. Ask your police department or your community policing officer for help in identifying what to report, when, to whom, and how.

    When contacted, more aggressive or targeted police tactics can have a sizable effect on suppressing some crimes. Accordingly, more alert citizens and calls to the police when crimes occur will increase police presence in any given area. Make it possible for neighbors to report suspicious activity or crimes without fear of retaliation by making sure the criminals are fairly punished.

    Be involved with court proceedings
    In addition to reporting a crime or something you suspect might be a crime, agree to testify if needed. Form a Court Watch to help support victims and witnesses and to see that criminals get fairly punished. After arrests in the neighborhood, community members can monitor and track the progress of cases and encourage prosecutors and judges to give appropriate sentences. Neighborhood organizations can also encourage prosecutors' offices to develop drug courts, community courts, and alternative sentencing programs.

    Take legal action
    Neighborhood groups or residents in conjunction with local elected officials can pressure landlords to evict drug dealers and maintain and improve building security by improving lighting, door locks, intercoms, and roof doors. Legal action can be taken, in cooperation with local officials, to close down bars, liquor stores, or other establishments that tolerate illegal activities. It is best for communities to force landlords or property owners to renovate or demolish unoccupied buildings that are being used by criminals. For instance, Phoenix's Neighborhood Preservation Division has the authority through a number of city or town ordinances to prosecute delinquent property owners who do not maintain their properties and fence off and demolish vacant and deteriorated properties if need be. Civil actions can be used in lieu of, or along with, criminal proceedings.

Approaches for specific problems
    Address loitering and panhandling issues
    People do not want to be harassed and will not walk in an area where they feel unsafe. Transients, vagrants, or other people who hang out in a public area such as a park or on a street corner for no apparent reason and hassle passer-bys, drink, smoke, or aggressively panhandle for spare change can discourage people from walking. Furthermore, neighborhoods that neglect these minor signs of disorder may be opening the door to more serious crimes and neighborhood disorder. Minor misconduct, such as public drinking and vagrancy, may, if left unchecked, signal potential miscreants that no one is watching or no one cares.

    Ask city or town officials to draw panhandlers away from areas where a lot of pedestrians are present or areas where children walk to school by providing services to the homeless in areas outside of areas where pedestrians will not be intimidated. Anti-loitering ordinances exist in many cities and towns throughout the nation. Accordingly, when you see a group of people loitering or aggressively panhandling, contact the police to have them dispersed or arrested in compliance with local ordinances. Property owners can give police permission to enter private property, such as parking lots or external stairs, to investigate and possibly arrest loiterers.

    Put a stop to graffiti and vandalism
    Graffiti on the sides of buildings, vehicles, and other structures and vandalism, such as the breaking and scratching of windows or cars, can look unsightly and intimidate people, thereby discouraging them from walking in your neighborhood. According to the National Crime Prevention Council, most vandals are young people - from grade-schoolers to teens to young adults - who damage property because they may be bored, angry, vengeful, defiant, or trying to prove or display their alliance to a gang. Graffiti is often the first sign that gangs are taking over a neighborhood. Gangs use graffiti as their street "telegraph," sending messages about turf and advertising their exploits. Graffiti identifies territorial boundaries, lists members, and communicates with rival gangs. Graffiti is viewed by many as symbolizing urban decay or the presence of gangs or "tagger" crews. It generates fear of crime and neighborhood instability. Paint and marker ink become harder to remove over time. Therefore quick removal of any new graffiti will make removal easier. Here's a list of ways to put a stop to graffiti and vandalism in your neighborhood:

      Report and clean up vandalism as soon as you see it
      Clean up vandalism as soon as it happens - replace signs, repair playground equipment, and paint over graffiti. If you see anyone committing vandalism or graffiti, treat it as a 911 call situation and report it to the police. Remember, vandalism and graffiti is illegal, punishable by jail, fines, or community service. Make your local police aware of patterns of graffiti or vandalism in your neighborhood, especially the spots where the vandalism is the worst, to help them apprehend vandals.

      If you notice graffiti on traffic signs or traffic signal control boxes, report it to your traffic or public works department. Traffic signs that are made of a reflective material may be destroyed by some graffiti removal products and paint will block the reflective quality of the sign. Painting over graffiti on traffic signal controller boxes may cause the locks to be clogged with paint.

      Organize a graffiti clean-up day
      According to the National Crime Prevention Council, a neighborhood's first step in taking back its streets from gangs is getting rid of graffiti. This power struggle can't be won overnight, but persistent neighborhoods working in partnership with law enforcement almost always emerge as victors. Controlling or eliminating graffiti demonstrates that you and your neighbors are concerned about the quality of life, and crime, in your neighborhood. It may also provide you with an opportunity to address related illegal activity before it escalates into more serious crimes, such as theft or drug abuse.

      Public agencies try to respond in a timely manner, but they need your help. Before you remove graffiti, notify the police department so they can document it with photographs. This helps build cases against these vandals. Clean-up often has to be done again and again, but patience and persistence pay off. If an area you have cleaned up becomes covered in graffiti again, remove it as quickly as possible. The goal is to deny the vandal the chance to display their "work". You can either remove graffiti or paint it over. Many groups choose to paint over rather than remove it because of the hazardous nature of paint removers and solvents. When painting over graffiti, consider new graffiti-resistant products on the market that have a chemical makeup that makes it difficult for paint and ink to adhere to them. Also, consider the use of paint containing polyurethane. This paint is more expensive, but it makes removal of any new graffiti relatively easy. Hold a neighborhood block party after the clean-up and ask businesses to contribute gifts, such a local movie theater donating free passes, to the clean-up volunteers.

      Once again, if you notice graffiti on traffic signs or traffic signal control boxes, report it to your traffic or public works department. Traffic signs that are made of a reflective material may be destroyed by some graffiti removal products and paint will block the reflective quality of the sign. Painting over graffiti on traffic signal controller boxes may cause the locks to be clogged with paint.

      Contact your neighborhood organization and other civic groups to provide volunteers. Check with state or county agencies which may have special requirements regarding the color of paint used if the clean-up is on state or county buildings, walls, or property. Local businesses can donate the paint removal and painting supplies and local merchants can provide gifts to reward volunteers. Some local governments provide free paint to neighborhood block watch and other advocacy groups to clean-up graffiti. Involve the youth of your neighborhood: teens who help clean up graffiti will be less likely to become involved in acts of vandalism. The police can provide discrete protection while your group is removing or painting over graffiti. Notify your local precinct of graffiti removal activities so that they cruise by occasionally to ensure your safety.

      Prevent future vandalism
      In areas where graffiti or other forms of vandalism continually occur, use landscape designs (such as prickly shrubs or closely planted hedges), building materials (such as hard-to-mark surfaces), lighting, artwork, or fences to discourage vandalism. A good way to prevent future vandalism is to adopt a street or park, perhaps in cooperation with a church or business to instill pride in the area and discourage future vandalism from happening. Whether it's on your street, in a park, in your apartment complex, neighborhood, or outside your home, there's a number of things you can do to discourage vandalism:
      • Plant trees, bushes, and flowers.
      • Get local artists or children to paint murals on walls and other areas that are continually vandalized with graffiti. The City of Cambridge has, for example, started a program where local children and artists paint traffic control boxes, which used to be repeated targets for graffiti.
      • Repair park equipment and install trash containers.
      • Organize a monthly park patrol to clean up litter and keep an eye on things.
      • Ask police or a city or town agency to start a hotline for reporting vandalism.
      • Make certain that city or town officials promptly remove abandoned cars.
      • Protect your house or apartment from vandalism by using good lighting and locking gates and garages.
      • Support recreational programs for young people in your neighborhood.
      • Volunteer your time, donate money or supplies, and help in any way you can.
      • Make it harder for youth to buy or possess spray paint or permanent markers by enacting age limits for the sale of such items. Some communities have enacted ordinances that require spray paint to be locked up on store shelves since studies have shown that much of the spray paint used in graffiti was stolen.
      The Citizens Committee for New York City outlines other ways to get vandals, specifically graffiti artists, off the street and into more productive programs.

      Educate the public
      Educate the public, especially young people, about the costs of vandalism. Have a neighborhood meeting on vandalism to discuss its victims, costs, and solutions. Vandalism is an expensive crime. Schools pay out millions of dollars each year to clean up graffiti, repair buildings, or replace vandalized equipment. That means less money for new books, computers, sports equipment, and student activities. Local governments (and their taxpayers) pay the bills for broken street lights, stolen signs, and vandalized parks. Businesses pass the costs of vandalism on to customers through higher prices. Vandalism is also hurtful. People feel angry, sad, and frightened when something of theirs - a mailbox, a garden, a car antenna - is destroyed for no reason. Vandalism indirectly claims other victims: a child is injured because a stop sign was stolen or a person can't call 9-1-1 because the public phone is broken.

    Install dawn to dusk lights and report street light outages to city and town officials
    (see Section 6: No Walking at Night)

    Report scary dogs
    Stray or unleashed dogs can discourage people from walking in your neighborhood. While some unleashed dogs are friendly and aren't concerned with people, others can be scary and intimidating. For people who have a fear of dogs as either a condition (cynophobia) or from past unpleasant encounters, any unleashed dog may cause them to be fearful. Accordingly, a number of steps can be taken to keep dogs in your neighborhood under control.

      Help establish or report violations of leash laws
      If you notice a number of scary, unleashed dogs that are bothering pedestrians in your neighborhood, you may want to check to see if your community has a leash law and, if so, what that leash law covers. Many communities have leash laws that require that dogs be on a leash except when on the owner's or caretaker's property. Other cities also require that dogs on the owner's property be restrained by a fence or leashing. Some cities further state that dogs must not be able to reach the public sidewalk if tied out in their yard. However, experts have found that tethering or chaining a dog in their yard may not be healthy for the dog and may cause the dog to become anxious and aggressive. Accordingly, a fenced yard or dog run may be the best solution.

      If a leash law already exists, you should call the local police or animal control agency to report the problem. If your community does not have an adequate leash law, or perhaps no leash law at all, and unleashed dogs are a big problem in your neighborhood, you may want to work with community officials in crafting a more effective leash law or perhaps a dangerous dog law. To read about a citizen who became involved in dog control policy and the dangerous dog law she passed, click here.

      Report stray or roaming dogs
      If you see stray or roaming dogs in your neighborhood, you should call the local police or animal control agency. Try to get an estimate of how long it may take someone to respond and if possible, stay on the scene to keep an eye on the dog until help arrives to be sure the dog doesn't leave the area, cross traffic, or bother people passing by.

      Don't assume you're dealing with an irresponsible owner. If you've never lost a cherished companion animal, you may conclude that the owner of the roaming dog callously abandoned him or neglected to keep him safely confined at home. But accidents can happen to anyone; the frantic owner may be looking everywhere for their beloved pet.

Other approaches
    Debunk the fear
    According to a study by the National Institute of Justice, a problem closely related to crime is the fear of crime. Anything that can be done to reduce that fear contributes to an improvement in the quality of life in a community, even if there is no impact on the crime rate. A fear of crime is usually caused by dramatic incidents, repetition of highly visual stories about crime on TV news programs, or reports of incidents involving someone you know. Accordingly, the fear of crime may rise while the occurrence of crimes actually drops. Indeed, even though there seems to be a growing fear of violence in the United States as a whole, the homicide rate in the United States has been flat for the past 20 years and has been decreasing since it peaked in 1991.

    Check the crime statistics for your neighborhood. Contact the police department and ask the person in charge of your community's crime statistics if crime has increased or decreased in your neighborhood over the past several years. If in fact crime has recently dropped in your neighborhood, spread the word. Tell your neighbors and community leaders the truth so that people will no longer live in fear of something that isn't as serious as originally thought.

    Be street smart
    The National Crime Prevention Council has several recommendations for being street smart. Trust your instincts; if something or someone makes you uneasy, avoid the person or leave. Know the neighborhoods where you live and work; try to walk with others; know the locations of police and fire stations, public telephones, hospitals, and restaurants, or stores that are open late. Stick to well-traveled streets; avoid shortcuts through wooded areas, parking lots, or alleys. Whenever possible, walk with a group of people. There's safety in numbers. Additionally, the increasing popularity of cellular phones has resulted in a higher degree of safety from crime.

    Don't flash large amounts of cash or other tempting targets like expensive jewelry or clothing. Carry a purse close to your body, not dangling by the straps. Put a wallet in an inside coat or front pants pocket, not a back pocket. Try to use automated teller machines in the daytime; have your card in hand and don't approach the machine if you're uneasy about people nearby.

    Send the message that you're calm, confident, and know where you're going. Don't wear shoes or clothing that restrict your movements. Have your car or house key in hand before you reach the door. If you think someone is following you, switch direction or cross the street. Walk toward an open store, restaurant, or lighted house. If you're scared, yell for help. If you have to work late, make sure there are others in the building, and ask someone - a colleague or security guard - to walk you to your car or transit stop.

    Educate the media
    Neighborhood groups should provide information to the media about crime and other problems and the effectiveness of problem-solving and community policing approaches. When the media reports that conditions in your neighborhood are looking up, residents in your neighborhood will feel safer and will be more likely to get out and walk. The media can also help get the word out about events that your neighborhood organization is sponsoring. To get the attention of the media, call the news desk community calendar or write letters to the editor, appear on local radio or TV shows, and organize press conferences.

    Prevent crime through better neighborhood design
    If areas and buildings in your neighborhood are being redeveloped, contact your city or town's planning or zoning departments and make sure that the new development will conform with the principles of Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED).

    According to the International CPTED Association, CPTED has as its basic premise that the proper design and effective use of the physical environment can lead to a reduction in the incidence and fear of crime, thereby improving the quality of life. Creating territoriality, natural surveillance and eyes on the street, and controlling access into, and out of, buildings and neighborhoods are some of the traditional tactics of CPTED. This discipline is based on where and when criminal behavior occurs in the environment. It is a geography of crime that addresses fear of crime in people, and their fear of places that appear unfriendly.

    According to the National Crime Prevention Council, CPTED examines various aspects of community planning to mitigate crime. These aspects include the creation of space, its use and safety; the locations of land uses; the positions of buildings and other structures; interior and exterior design details such as color, lighting, entrances and exits, and landscaping; and the users of space and when and how they will use it. Unlike some other crime prevention and control strategies, CPTED emphasizes understanding and changing the physical environment of a building or neighborhood.

    Successful CPTED programs bring together a wide range of community members-from residents and business professionals to government agencies. This multi-disciplinary approach includes collaborating to define problems, identify solutions, carry out the most feasible plan, and evaluate the results. Because each community is unique and each community has its own, unique set of problems, there is no generic formula for applying CPTED to communities. Instead, CPTED consultants can be contacted or various guidebooks can be consulted. Make sure that your city or town knows about these resources.


International CPTED Association, http://www.cpted.net

Scott, Michael S. 2001. "Panhandling." The Problem-Oriented Guide for Police Series, United States Department of Justice, Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, http://www.cops.usdoj.gov/Default.asp?Open=True&Item;=280

National Crime Prevention Council, 1997, Designing Safer Communities: A CPTED Handbook. Available at http://store.yahoo.com/mcgruff/dessafcomcpt.html

National Institute of Justice, 1999, "Measuring What Matters: Proceedings From the Police Research Institute Meetings." http://www.ojp.usdoj.gov/nij/pubs-sum/170610.htm

Citizens Committee for New York City, 2000, "Controlling Graffiti in Your Neighborhood."

National Sheriff's Association, 2003, "Neighborhood Watch: A Manual for Citizens and for Law Enforcement." http://www.usaonwatch.org/pdfs/watchmanual.pdf

National Crime Prevention Council http://www.ncpc.org

Clean City Initiative