Everyone is right to be concerned with the safety of their communities, whether they live in an area highly susceptible to crime or a sleepy Mayberry-esque hamlet. Condominiums, cooperatives, and homeowners associations are no exception; in fact, the communal nature of these environments may make it even more likely that residents would want to band together in effort to advocate for their mutual well-being. Sometimes, this takes on the form of a neighborhood watch, with neighbors working together to establish a chain of command that will rapidly alert the proper authorities should something seem amiss. And this can often be well and good; mutual support systems are inherently a positive, and neighborhood watch programs can and do have a place in a multifamily residential context. But it’s important to be aware of the boundaries. As the death of Trayvon Martin in 2012 starkly demonstrated, when unqualified, untrained citizens take the law into their own hands, tragedy can all too easily be the result.
When considering establishing a neighborhood watch, it’s important for an association to acknowledge where its responsibilities lie and what its specific goals are and then develop a structure from there. The primary purpose of a neighborhood watch should be to observe and report, rather than intervene and escalate.
“[Neighborhood watch] is an area that needs to be handled delicately, and must be approached very cautiously,” warns David Muller, a community association attorney with international law firm Becker & Poliakoff, which has offices in both New York and New Jersey. “There’s a common misconception that community associations affirmatively ensure the safety of their residents and owners, but the reality is that associations are tasked with doing that which is required of them under the governing documents and the statutes. Unless those documents specifically state that the association is tasked with protecting the residents from crime, then that’s not one of its affirmative obligations. Now, a lot of times people misconstrue that statement as allowing the board to turn a blind eye, but of course that’s not the case either. If you’re aware of violations that are happening and ignore them, there could be liability for the association.”
Of course, not every association is content with adhering to its documents and nothing more. Some will strive to go above and beyond to bolster their communities. And if this means considering forming a watch group or committee, it’s crucial that it be done the right way.
Carmen Caldwell, treasurer of the National Crime Prevention Association and executive director of Citizens’ Crime Watch of Miami-Dade in Florida, stresses that neighborhood watches work best in communities where the owners live in their residences year-round. “The essence of a neighborhood watch is establishing a phone chain,” she explains. “Everyone participating exchanges numbers — but if many people are leaving for the winter, that chain falls apart.”