May 26, 2009

Neighborhood Watch Signs Lead to Varying Perceptions of Crime

A recent study out of the Department of Justice examined the effects of neighborhood watch signs on perceptions of crime. It found that watch signs in low income and middle income areas produced perceptions that crime was a problem (which is the opposite effect of what the signs are intended to produce). In higher income areas, it did the opposite: improved perceptions of neighborhood crime levels.

The neighborhood watch signs, according to the authors, nudge people to pay more attention to other cues in the community. They serve to amplify what exists in the environment, be it graffiti, bars on windows, or greenery. It is an example about how a small variable, posting of neighborhood watch signs, can influence perceptions -- and have unintended consequences.

With respect to our work on reentry in Upper Manhattan, this raises some questions. Does the highlighting of Harlem as a high reentry community actually serve to reinforce the conditions we hope to change? It also connects back to an article in today's Daily News, in which community residents expressed great concern about rising crime rates, even though there is no data to substantiate those fears. Broadly, what effect does media and communications have on community perceptions of crime?