Collective Empowerment or an Invitation to Vigilantes?

a street sign saying a neighborhood watch program is in force
Photo by Werth Media CC BY-NC

Jeremy Liu’s post on combining “proactive” and “protective” services to both give people a greater sense of agency and help control costs for municipal budgets was an opening to discuss the ways community development can be a part of lowering costs for localities.

But something else came to mind as I was reading through his piece. It’s just over a year ago that 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was shot by neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman in Sanford, Florida.

A trial is set to commence in June for Zimmerman, who’s charged with second-degree murder. Zimmerman says he was acting in self defense and that Martin was following him; Martin’s supporters say he was targeted for being black.

This, combined with the (in my view) backward push from some to put more guns in more places, namely schools, gave me pause as I considered Liu’s suggestions.

The gist of Liu’s municipal money saving idea is that through new technology, community members would be able to access an “811” number that could mobilize residents, rather than police, to put a stop to nonviolent crimes. He suggests this could work in cases such as someone stealing a bike or spraying graffiti.

Liu says such a strategy has the potential to make communities safer, save money on police costs, and increase “the agency, or sense of control or self-determination over one’s conditions, of residents and community member in a neighborhood or on a block…”

This idea of collective efficacy has been lauded as a way to make communities safer, but Shelterforce editor Miriam Axel-Lute questioned in 2008 whether the idea would work best in homogeneous neighborhoods, whether poor or middle class, since in integrated neighborhoods, neighborhood watch organizing tends to split along lines of race and class and trust of police.

I recognize my own privilege of being white and female; I’m not likely to be seen as suspicious for hanging outside a store front. Yet the idea of giving people increased control over law enforcement in their neighborhood makes me nervous. Especially in light of the debates over gun laws around the country. 

There’s a lot of potential in Liu’s idea; strengthening community block groups and bringing neighbors together to make their streets safer can work under the right circumstances. An extreme example for the good potential is in the news now as the story of Charles Ramsey rescuing three kidnapped women and a child from his neighbor’s home unfolds. Still nagging though, is the fear that vigilante watch groups could create a more hostile and segregated environment.

Leaders in municipalities are racking their brains to figure out how to balance their budgets and services, and like Liu, I think community development could play a role in helping to control costs in communities where budgets are being slashed, but let’s keep our eyes open for unintended consequences.

Do you think something like an “811” number could be implemented in an area with racial and class divides? How do community organizers ensure safety for all residents in a segregated community?

Jodi Weinberger served as assistant editor of Shelterforce from 2013 to 2014.


  1. While I believe that helping community members to work together to ensure the safety of their neighborhood is a good strattegy, I have the same concerns as you, Jody. In communities where there is racial and class segregation, putting community members in charge of preventing or intervening in crimes, can result in people of color and lower-income individuals being unfairly targeted and suspected of committing crimes.

    I also agree that these type of efforts may work better in homogenous communities, where there may be more trust among community members because of shared racial and/or class backgrounds. I do believe that communities should lead the efforts to ensure the safety of everyone in the community, but it has to be done delicately.

    Also, what should happen to a person who is caught committting a non-violent crime by another community member? Is calling the police the best solution? What alternative models exist to hold people accountable for the harm they have caused, while promoting healing for any victims and the community?


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