Down with the Neighborhood Watch, anyway


By Francesco Caccetta


“A state of things does not necessarily reflect an ideal condition. But it is a fact that when it comes to get down to work and start a change there is always a price to be paid, and that’s why an overwhelming majority of people have rather to protest and grumble than acting.” Giovanni Falcone, Public Prosecutor

I feel to begin my observation with these renowned Falcone’s words, as he has been one of the deepest points of reference in my professional experience; a man that so many times inspired me, while coping with investigatory troubles and occupational dilemmas, even in case of security matters actually related to the Italian national territory.

The recent recurrence of terrorism contributes to raise the level of perceived insecurity in our cities, and any possible, following risk of damage – as a consequence of some unfavorable, not predictable circumstance – turns fundamental element of social disease in our present-day society. As a matter of facts, the world we live in appears as increasingly ruled by jeopardy, although it seems not more dangerous than it used to be in previous periods.

If we consider items as the average duration of our life, or illnesses, hunger problems, private violence and wars, we should even believe this time as one of the most safe out of the last centuries. And yet, our worry for dangers has really raised in these last decades.

Within a sphere of intervention opportunities, as focused by the criminologist analysis, a particular remark is to be ascribed to the urban security; in this case, one of the most relevant sides is the central target we’re aiming to hit: “in other words, any favorable condition which may prevent from dangerous events, serious for both people and things, as well as limiting damages once the fact we fear has already occurred.” 1

Further attention, in this particular time,  is to be given to a possible wrong estimation of a security alarm, right at the moment it is being perceived, since it’s not true that the feeling of fear sensed by people can increase the gravity itself of the actual situation. To estimate a risk on an emotional basis is always a mistake, for hardly ever the subjective insecurity dread matches the real security condition.

Now, whoever deals with security problems should have enough integrity to keep the right distance between the needs of this facet and the political visibility. The reason of this statement is that for the most part people don’t have culture or suitable means for a correct estimation of the risk they really run, which usually stands for a continuous apply to the Authorities in order to require more Police in the district they live, or a signature-collection to open a new Police or Carabinieri Department, sometimes even trough street demonstrations before a Prefecture. This kind of protest unfortunately meets politicians and administrators ready to agree, moved by fear of unpopularity, although they are perfectly aware of the pointlessness of these enterprises. Beyond that – according to me – most of times it all just turns into a loss of time.

It is by far a shared opinion that repression, control and penal justice on their own cannot arouse security, for a number of reasons – some known and others less – which I’m not going to discuss, not to make the mistake we have just expounded. An effective prevention activity has to involve all of the operational subjects working within the society, both private and public forces, that only together can turn on the people with a new sense of trust. A target we can hit only when each present or predictable risk has been highlighted, in order to choose the proper strategy of solution or prevention.

About this, a deeper meaning of Falcone’s words stands out, for this is the right moment for the people to express their personality. “A state of things does not necessarily reflect an ideal condition. But it is a fact that when it comes to get down to work and start a change there is always a price to be paid…”. Now, the price we are presently facing is the adoption of a new life philosophy, and precisely a back-way to the past we belong to, as Italians. A return to our courtyards, to our community, and after all to a shared feeling of being members of the habitat we are part of. So, we are somehow called to rediscover our districts, our neighborhood, with all the people who live around us, and that we meet every-day, although we often don’t even look at them. Aloofness and individualism are the worst foe we have to cope with, since both bring to isolation and being alone easily involves the risk of turning into victims or preys, and in the end it all leads to an increasing fear.

But the fear of crime is not always to be intended as a negative item; Erwin Goffman used to refer to it as inherent to the every-day life, explaining that it helps to reduce the risk, acting as a self-protection. Now, this fear gets much less oppressive as the informal control on a territory gets more intense. The informal control is the result of the presence of families, school, associations and citizens at large, while the formal control is brought by Police, Magistracy and public offices, assiduously dealing with both repression and prevention in a specific way. Still, in spite of appearance, it’s just the informal kind of control that makes the difference between a safe district and an unsafe one. In a healthy area, the inhabitants know each other, so they all share both a values and beliefs system, feeling thus responsible for the quality life level. Where the family ties and the emotional bonds are socially strong, the perception of insecurity tends to reducer2. Many authors do actually agree3 on this point, as they make use of the conception of collective efficacy, intended as “the social cohesion of a district, combined with the common will to take part to actions aiming to reach a shared goal”, in order to study the different spread of violence from a district to another. This collective efficacy was weighed up through both a social-control scale and a social-cohesion and trust scale. In this case, the authors can show that a careful civic community is able to carry out a better and more effective informal control, which leads to reduce violence and to a lower number of crimes at large.

The price to be paid, as Falcone suggested, is the strength of coming back into play, of taking possession of one’s habitat, and finally develop a renewed sense of membership, made up of pride and localism, so that altogether – as the safe-side of the district – the citizens can make their feelings available for the informal control purpose.


Falcone said: …” and that’s why an overwhelming majority of people have rather to protest and grumble than acting.”

That is the bitter truth. We often listen to people moaning by social media as well as any other communication system. They ask for security, for Police corps working with more dedication – as if what they do was not enough – much more presence by the public administration, stricter verdicts to hit criminality and so on. Well, these all are rightful and legitimate requests, since whoever would like a perfect Judicial system, no outlaw free to move around. But we know that real things are quite different. Everywhere. Except in some countries, where authoritarian regimes in exchange for security call for huge personal freedom hardships.

Certainly, waiting for a greater institutional commitment is fully kosher, but no more than complaints leads nowhere. On the other hand, taking conscience of what any simple citizen can do in order to help the Police to keep our streets and districts safer is right as well, and we get to this only once we remember we are consociates before we’re users. Security is not something we can receive by someone else, while it is rather to be shared, created and kept within our virtuous civic circle, among people, Police and Administration. Right now, dozens of Italian municipalities and citizens groups are loudly claiming for  the Neighborhood Watch Project to be adopted, for it just aims to get the social community renewed, since that is the better symptom of an increasing informal control. Regaining our collective efficacy, learning not to offer opportunities to criminals by putting aside ones vulnerability, make our houses and properties less attractive, having a closer rapport between us and the Police – also by giving qualified information – are the main targets of the Neighborhood Watch program ( –

The habit of moaning, by a particular side of the Italian society, is also showed through some defeatism issued by the web. It is quite frequent (when you consider that “an overwhelming majority of people have rather to protest and grumble than acting”) to read of attacks towards the NWP promoters, made of sarcastic witticism, or two-bit prophecies, sounding like “where is the NWP, since thefts are going on? Just prattles so far, but no results !!”, as if the NWP could ever be the wonder-solution to any crime, and just its name on a news-paper front page could make a whole district inviolable, with no effort of any of those who live in the area to put the Project into practice.

The NWP is not a substitute for burglar alarms. it is instead a new life philosophy, which should deeply change the way that resident people use to think and act, whether we are talking about a particular area or a building, a few streets as well as a whole district or a small town. Well, it works (as you can behold on yourselves, just by taking a look through the web), but it only works when people put it into action. Otherwise it will stand still as no more than a good, torpid idea. I can well understand the outburst and anger of those who live in some particular places where crime keeps on, although the NWP has already established its groups, but we have to clear up that as long as we do not get our share started, changing once and for all the way we think and act, there will be no way out. It is pointless to quarrel, charging the NWP promoters for the not working procedures. A serious analysis of what has so far been done is to be conducted in order to find out any wrong detail, so to face the problem as soon as we are ready to get involved. Whole districts of Rome, small Umbrian towns, widespread areas of Milan are right now testing the NWP, and it has been assessed that wherever people have understood (without falling in the trap of suchlike ideas, suggested by the Authorities and bound to stay as no more than political proclamations) and wherever the Project has been rightly tuned, it rather works and moreover brings to relevant reductions of crimes. More than once, Prefect Gabrielli has publically invited the Romans to join the NW Project, since he considers it as a most effective instrument of fight against crime, when the basic role of the Police is supported by the needful collateral, performed by the citizens. I conclude my speech, by urging the readers to ponder over Falcone’s words. The naked truth is that everyone of us is free to pick out his own role within the piece of world he lives in. Someone will keep on protesting and blaming other people, who – may be – are really answerable, while someone else will be trying to offer his own aid, through concrete proposals and projects. Each point is questionable by a different point of view once it is exposed; while chattering is and stays what it is: a pointless waste of time. And yet, those who choose to complain are to be respected anyway, for they unwittingly admit their own limits. So, what now? We all should come together, put aside our dislikes and intolerance, and try hard to deepen the Neighborhood Watch Project, not by a simple signature on a form, but through a clever heart choice, for this fight can only be won by staying together. Which means we cannot be divided any longer.

1 Balloni A. Bisi R. Applied Criminology for Investigation and Security, Franco Angeli, Milano 1996

2 Rosenbaum D.P. Heath L. The psycho-logic of fear reduction and crime prevention programs, Plenum Press, New York – 1990

3 Sampson R.J Raudenbush S.W. Earls F. Neighborhood and violent crime: a multilevel study of collective efficacy, Science, 277,918, 1997

English version by Furio C Falvo