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ACPC Newsletter – News from NHWA: a chat with CEO Ingrid Stonhill

Published in the Australian Crime Prevention Council Newsletter May 2014 .

With 30 years of community engagement under its belt, is Neighbourhood Watch meeting the needs of today’s society?  It’s a question I am often asked, which always leads me down a path of reflection. I first became aware of Neighbourhood Watch in my early 20’s as a “fresh out of university”, working professional, flatting for the first time. We were burgled. I remember clearly the indignation I felt by the invasion of my home and theft of my property. (can I just add here it was money, jewellery and small items, the TV and DVD in those days far too heavy to hoist quickly and none of us had dreamt, or even imagined, about something called a laptop).

The lovely community police officer who attended our call out recommended that I consider starting a Neighbourhood Watch group. A what? Whilst I could not recall his response to that specific question I do recall his explanation as to why Neighbourhood Watch groups had taken off in the city. About a year earlier a woman had been bashed in her own home. Her screams for mercy and help had gone unaided. Her neighbours had heard her but had done nothing. That story had a profound and long lasting effect on me.

I have always held the belief that Neighbourhood Watch started as the mechanism to give permission for neighbours to go next door and meet one another. It is based on the principle that people need to be connected to people to survive. Perhaps the original sharing of crime statistics or details of some heinous crime may have been a little scaremongering to encourage involvement. However the basic fundamental intent has always been there. We all want to feel safe in our homes, streets and communities. So knowing who is right next door to us is important in achieving that.

I took for granted what I had growing up. As a kid I did a paper round, I also did a Sunday morning papers and fresh bread run for our elderly neighbours. That’s how I earned my pocket money. The local store owner knew me by name, where I lived and who my parents were. I walked to school, was part of the local youth club and played sport. All of these activities lead to natural interaction within my local community. It’s that natural interaction, that local network and knowledge that is an essential component to making Neighbourhood Watch a success.

So let’s fast track 40 years, what have we got today? I don’t have a local store I frequent anymore. I’ve done a lot of driving of my kids to and from school and sports events. I drive to the gym to exercise! Whilst I pride myself on knowing almost everyone in my street by sight and many by name, I very rarely walk the local streets.

We are a society reliant on the car. We drive everywhere. Departing and returning from our internal garages, we live in gated communities, we don’t have to see, speak or wave to anyone in our street if we don’t want to. To keep in touch with friends I text or use Face Book, Instagram or Messenger or even the good old email, I don’t Twitter. I’m a typical statistic, a 40 something female, on-line communicator. It’s fun, quick and easy.

No one can ignore the enormous effect advancing technology has had and will continue to have on the makeup of our family and community communication structure. Where can you go these days to escape the mobile phone? Our obsession with being on our phones is all consuming. I don’t read the paper anymore, I read the news on-line. I love Google, how did I live without it? (my husband feels he has now become redundant – no more questions to ponder). I have instant access to anything I want to know. Mobile phones are banned from meal times in my home, so we can actually converse with one another. I notice that my teenagers never really plan anything in detail in advance, no need, it’s all instant communication. I am the same, guilty as charged!

Neighbourhood Watch has developed on-line, it has had to, to stay relevant. We have had to advance our crime prevention messaging delivery and knowledge to stay current. Being safe in your own home is not all we have to think about. I can get burgled on-line! If you are on-line, then you could also be a sitting target to new types of crime. Identity theft, relationship scams, lotteries scams, business scams – in fact there are hundreds of scams we probably don’t even know about yet. We are constantly developing and updating our website information to share quality examples and knowledge through both traditional communication methods and on-line methods. You can join a Neighbourhood Watch group on-line. Whether engaging with your geographical community or your community of interest. It’s fast and efficient, but it begs the question – is it enough?

It seems life is so much more fast paced with a drive for instant gratification. We need instant access to almost everything because we are so time poor. So we develop a greater reliance on the technology that can give us what we require. But are we forgetting the most important thing here, it’s not about the technology; it’s about people, people, people.

There are some sobering lessons to be learned from our consuming dependency on technology. None closer to home for me than the 2011 Christchurch earthquake. All forms of technological communication failed. In survival mode, people turned to people for help. It was the traditional Neighbourhood Watch (Neighbourhood Support in New Zealand) phone tree system that came to the fore, neighbours knew neighbours and they knew who to check on.

Neighbourhood Watch is about creating communities that are safe, connected and inclusive. Are we relevant? Absolutely.  Neighbourhood Watch today is based on that first and foremost underlying principle – People need to be connected to people to survive. Now more than ever in our fast paced, technology driven society, our greatest asset as an organisation is we promote and connect local community networks. We make no apology for understanding and maintaining the value of “connectedness”.

Like so many other companies, governments and organisations we strive to stay abreast of emerging issues and trends. We value technology as we work to achieve the very best in information and knowledge sharing through the latest methods. But as I reflect back, I am left with the conundrum, if I fall in my home, if I am faced with a situation that requires me to scream for help at the top of my lungs, it won’t be my computer that comes to my aid – it will be my neighbour. So where should I invest my time?

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