Preventing crime together

In recent years it has become popular to mock the concept of neighborhood watch. Last summer's Ben Stiller comedy, "The Watch," followed four inept suburban crime watchers as they attempted to save their neighborhood from an alien invasion. The showdown takes place, appropriately enough considering their affluent surroundings, underneath the local Costco.

If that wasn't bad enough, George Zimmerman was a local neighborhood watch coordinator and was known to Sanford, Fla. police for his frequent calls reporting suspicious individuals. His shooting of Trayvon Martin in February of last year took much of the humor — and public sympathy — out of the crime watch image.


While those episodes, real and cinematic fiction, may have revealed the potential folly of amateur policing, they did not disprove the notion that a neighborhood where people know and look out for each other is a safer place to live. Indeed, if Mr. Zimmerman had known more people in The Retreat at Twin Lakes, the community where both he and his victim were residing (Mr. Zimmerman as a renter and Mr. Martin as a guest at his father's fiancee's home), the incident might even have been avoided.

That's why this Tuesday's "National Night Out," the 30th year the anti-crime and drug prevention national event has been held, is not something to be sneered at or taken lightly. According to organizers, last year's event involved more than 37 million people in 15,704 communities in all 50 states in everything from block parties and cookouts to safety tutorials and parades.


The point of the evening is not simply to turn on one's front porch light or rail against crime but to get out there and meet the neighbors, talk to local police, promote anti-crime programs and generally send a message of fellowship and unity. A number of Baltimore area neighborhoods have events scheduled from Charles Village to Towson, many with local police involved.

When crimes take place, the natural reaction is to batten down the hatches, become suspicious and withdraw from the world, but isolation only worsens the problem. In such a retreat, it becomes difficult to judge friends from criminals, neighbors from intruders. The sense of community is lost, and so are the protections that date to tribal days when the notion of "family" extended to a village out of sheer necessity.

We don't know that Tuesday's National Night Out will immediately lower crime that evening. That's not really the point. Nor would we claim that heightened vigilance or even greater familiarity with one's neighbors will eliminate the threat of violent crime either. There are neighborhoods in Baltimore and elsewhere where the challenge is much greater than that.

But what we are certain about is that there is strength in numbers. There are all kinds of strategies that have been proven to fight crime from improved lighting and the installation of surveillance cameras to pruning shrubs or other landscaping where criminals can hide. Simply picking up the trash and making sidewalks more pedestrian friendly can help, too. But most require concerned people to first band together and actively seek to make their neighbors safer.

Last month, a 3-year-old boy was found wandering on the streets of Linthicum at 3:45 a.m. He had unlocked the door of the house unbeknownst to his parents and slipped outside to find his grandparents after a bad dream. Andrew Hoffman, an off-duty firefighter from Glen Burnie, spotted Paul "Paulie" Marshall Jr. and immediately called authorities. The youngster was reunited safely with his family that morning — to the great relief of all — and all it required was the vigilance of one man with a cell phone, not a gun, who was paying attention.

Too often, the business of reducing crime is seen as a matter only for people with firearms strapped to their hips or special powers at their disposal — police and prosecutors, mayors and legislators. They certainly have their role. But don't underestimate what can be achieved by of people of good will with strong resolve, like the 600 men who walked North Avenue this summer to protest violence or the ministers and community leaders who have held rallies, vigils and other events to bring neighborhoods together.

That's not just a feel-good story, it's how civilization has always operated. We must look out for each other. And the process can begin by simply getting to know one's neighbors and offering to work together to make the community safer, one block at a time.