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Crime watch scheme flops

The Sunday Times, May 10 1987

By Brian Deer, Social Affairs Correspondent

NEIGHBOURHOOD watch, centrepiece of the government's crime-prevention strategy, is a failure, according to research commissioned by the Home Office and backed by Scotland Yard. Such schemes, which involve more than 4m people, have no effect on crime levels and possibly make them worse.

The findings are the result of a two-year investigation of neighbourhood watch carried out for the government at the Institute of Criminology in Cambridge. They include:

* Crime levels went up in the watch areas studied, which crime fell slightly in monitored areas that had no scheme. Both measurements are of crimes committed, not just those reported to police, and were collected by detailed questioning.

* Co-operation between police and public, measured by reported crime figures and by information telephoned to stations, showed no improvement in the watch areas. There was no rise in notification of suspicious persons.

* The detection of crime and police "clear-up" rates got worse. The number of offenders fell sharply, while clear-up rates for criminal damage and motor thefts were also down.

"There is no evidence of beneficial effects in any of these areas," the 70-page report says in summary. "Neighbourhood watch had no discernible impact on crime, its reporting or its detection."

Police chiefs, who received copies of the report on Friday, have been stunned by the findings, which suggest that running the schemes wastes considerable police time. David Owen, crime committee chairman of the Association of Chief Police Officers, and chief constable in North Wales, described the conclusions as "hellish stuff", and declined to say more.

Forces all over Britain have committed themselves to schemes after a campaign by ministers. Announcing a new crime-prevention initiative based on neighbourhood watch last week, Douglas Hurd, the home secretary, said the number of schemes had risen from 1,000 to 29,000 in just three years.

Although schemes vary, nearly all involve window sticker warnings to thieves, property marking and an initial community meeting, arranged in conjunction with the police.

There has been growing unease, however, among chief constables that, whatever the political enthusiasm, the schemes are often not an efficient use of police officers.

The only real advantage discovered was that some people in schemes were less frightened of household crime. Dr Trevor Bennett, the report's author, commented: "In my view there is not a great deal of good news here either, but one of the things neighbourhood watch was supposed to do was reduce the fear of crime."

Bennett studied four areas in the Metropolitan Police region, two with schemes in place and two without. Schemes regarded as good were selected for detailed investigations, using specially-commissioned opinion poll surveys of the population before the scheme began and after it was well-established.

Scotland Yard, numerous Metropolitan Police staff and the Home Office's research unit contributed to the study, which also relied on a computer model from the Royal Statistical Society.

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Police retreat in row over neighbourhood watch

The Sunday Times, May 17 1987
By Brian Deer, Social Affairs Correspondent

SCOTLAND YARD is refusing to release the results of a police investigation into neighbourhood watch schemes, despite growing concern about its effectiveness in reducing crime.

The investigation, ordered by Sir Kenneth Newman, the Metropolitan police commissioner, had been eagerly expected by crime prevention experts. Clearance had been given for its circulation when The Sunday Times last week sparked controversy by revealing a Home Office study critical of neighbourhood watch.

Following our report, Scotland Yard denied that neighbourhood watch had failed and claimed that police research showed the schemes were a success. In a statement this weekend, however, the Yard says its London-wide study was "not a sufficiently useful or important document" to publish.

Its findings are understood to show that recorded crime levels stayed the same in areas covered by neighbourhood watch schemes, and the study raises doubts about a "displacement" effect, where one sort of offence declines and another increases.

In his annual report last year, Newman wrote: "It seems more than probable that an effective neighbourhood watch project in one locality will displace burglary to a nearby neighbourhood which has not thought to protect itself. Alternatively, or additionally, if the watch schemes grow, there is some evidence to suggest that burglary drops but street robbery rises."

Scotland Yard's directorate of management services carried out the evaluation, which was intended to complement the Home Office study by Dr Trevor Bennett of the Cambridge Institute of Criminology, reported last week. Together they comprise the biggest-ever inquiry into neighbourhood watch.

The Metropolitan Police statement said that conclusive findings about the schemes are very hard to obtain. "Our study has more favourable indications about neighbourhood watch than Dr Bennett's research, but these are weakened by methodological difficulties."

Merseyside police also refused to release their evaluation of neighbourhood watch early last week, but reversed this decision after The Sunday Times complained to the Home Office.

This report, which ministers said revealed neighbourhood watch was working, was compiled by PC Alan Jenkins and Sgt Ian Latimer of the Merseyside force. They studied reported crime levels in four neighbourhood watch areas with an average of 67 houses.

The report was submitted by The Sunday Times to the independent Police Foundation for analysis. Malcolm Hibberd, the foundation's crime prevention researcher, described it as "absolutely abysmal". He commented: "I had been told that the report shows things were improving, but the conclusions do not follow from the report."

Bennett's study, however, was commended by the foundation and by Scotland yard crime prevention experts. One said: "We agreed with Trevor Bennett that he would do the big in-depth studies. They are the only ones where you can come up with any sensible findings."

These findings, however, made grim reading for supporters of the mushrooming neighbourhood watch phenomenon. They show that the schemes had no beneficial effect on crime levels, its reporting to the police or its detection.

Bennett was attacked last week for drawing such damning conclusions after studying only two schemes out of 29,000 recorded by the Home Office. But he said this weekend that the large majority of these schemes consisted of little more than people putting stickers in their windows, while good schemes had property marking and group meetings.

He had selected for deep analysis two of the most advanced schemes in the Metropolitan area, nominated by the police themselves, and compared them with two areas where there were no schemes. Each involved around 500 households.

"If the most promising schemes were later shown to have little effect on crime, it would not be expected that less promising schemes would be any more successful," he reported.

The Home Office said that Bennett's study did not invalidate the neighbourhood watch concept and that individual schemes do succeed. "Nobody will claim they all do, or even that the great majority do, but there are successes," a spokesman said.

Topic: neighbourhood watch

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