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5. The Neighbors are Watching

An anxious delegation of police officials from the ex-DDR recently contacted the L.A. Police Department. The former East Germans, faced with a massive upsurge in crime and ethnic violence following Westernization, desperately wanted to find out more about Los Angeles' most celebrated law enforcement personality. But they were not enquiring about Chief Willie Williams or his predecessor Daryl Gates. Rather they wanted to know more about "Bruno the Burglar," the felonious cartoon in a mask, who appears on countless signs that proclaim the borders of a "Neighborhood Watch" area.

The Neighborhood Watch program, comprising more than 5,500 crime-surveillance block clubs from San Pedro to Sylmar, is the LAPD's most important innovation in urban policing. Throughout what Burgess called the "Zone of Workingmen's Homes," which in Los Angeles comprises the owner-occupied neighborhoods of the central city as well as older blue-collar suburbs in the San Fernando and San Gabriel valleys, a huge network of watchful neighbors provides a security system that is midway between the besieged, gun-toting anomie of the inner ring and the private police forces of more affluent, gated suburbs.

Neighborhood Watch, now emulated by hundreds of North American and even European cities, from Rosemead to London, was the brainchild of former police chief Ed Davis. In the aftermath of the 1965-71 cycle of unrest in Southcentral and East L.A., Davis envisioned the program as the anchor of a larger "Basic Car" strategy designed to rebuild community support for the LAPD by establishing a territorial identity between patrol units and neighborhoods. Although Daryl Gates preferred SWAT teams (his invention) to Basic Cars, Neighborhood Watch continued to grow throughout the 1980s.

According to LAPD spokesperson Sgt. Christopher West,

Neighborhood Watch block clubs are intended to increase local solidarity and self-confidence in the face of crime. Spurred by their block captains, neighbors become more vigilant in the protection of each other's property and well-being. Suspicious behavior is immediately reported and home-owners meet regularly with patrol officers to plan crime prevention tactics.
An off-duty officer in a Winchell's Donut Shop was more picturesque. "Neighborhood Watch is supposed to work like a wagon train in an old-fashioned cowboy movie. The neighbors are the settlers, and the goal is to get them to circle their wagons and fight off the Indians until the cavalry -- that is to say, the LAPD -- can ride to their rescue."

Needless to say, this Wild West analogy has its dark sides. Who, for example, gets to decide what behavior is "suspicious" or who looks like an "Indian"? The obvious danger in any program that conscripts thousands of citizens to become police informers under the official slogan "Be on the Look Out for Strangers" is that it inevitably stigmatizes innocent groups. Inner-city teenagers are especially vulnerable to this flagrant stereotyping and harassment.

As an illustration, let me relate what happened at a recent meeting of my local Neighborhood Watch group (in the Echo Park area near Downtown). An elderly white woman asked a young policeman how to identify hard-core gang youth. His answer was stupefyingly succinct: "Gangbangers wear expensive athletic shoes and clean, starched tee-shirts." The old woman nodded her appreciation of this "expert" advice, while others in the audience squirmed in their seats at the thought of the well-groomed youth in the neighborhood who would eventually be stopped and searched because of this idiot stereotype.

Critics also worry that Neighborhood Watch does double-duty as a captive constituency for partisan politics. As Sergeant West acknowledged, "block captains are appointed by patrol officers and the program does obviously tend to attract the most pro-police elements of the population." These pro-police activists, moreover, tend to be demographically or culturally unrepresentative of their neighborhoods. In poor, young Latino areas, Watch captains are frequently elderly, residual Anglos. In areas where renters are a majority, the pro-police activists are typically homeowners or landlords. Although official regulations supposedly keep the Neighborhood Watch apolitical, block captains are generally regarded as Parker Center's de facto precinct workers. In 1986, for instance, the police union routinely campaigned in Neighborhood Watch meetings for the recall of the liberal majority on the state Supreme Court.

The new "community policing advisory boards" established in the wake of the Rodney King beating are hardly more independent. Although the reform commission headed by Warren Christopher criticized the LAPD's failure to respond to citizen complaints, it failed to provide for elected advisory boards. As with Neighborhood Watch groups, the board members serve strictly at the pleasure of local police commanders. When the Venice advisory board, for example, dared to endorse a Spring 1992 ballot proposal (Proposition F) crafted by the police commission, but opposed by the police union, they were simply fired by the captain in charge of the Pacific Division. The timorous police commissioners then refused to intervene on behalf of their own supporters.

Although the rhetoric resounds with pioneer values lifted out of a John Ford Western, the actual practices of the Neighborhood Watch and Community Policing programs more often evoke the models of (ex)East Germany or South Korea, where police informers on every block scrutinize their neighbors and watch for suspicious strangers.


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