Making neighbourhoods safer

By Doug Laing

Ron Ward is 90 later this year, a retired school headmaster who has spent all of his retirement with Neighbourhood Support, or Neighbourhood Watch, as it was initially called.

He has the good fortune to have never been burgled, and with wife Estelle now living in a villa in the Summerset retirement village near Taradale there's every reason to believe he never will be burgled.

People live in such villages for the security that comes with it, which includes the strong sense of neighbourhood, he says, and in the whole time he and Estelle have been residents there've really been only two incidents, he says when asked if anyone's been burgled in the area.

One "incident" was a group of "kids" and their skateboards, and the paths are possibly an attraction.

The other was when everyone was glued to the rugby on TV one night, and thieves in a stolen car crept in and started removing garden ornaments, some of which were smashed soon afterwards.

The latter highlights two aspects of residential crime: That wonders never cease and when there are elements of vulnerability there remains no room for complacency.

Thus, Mr Ward, head of the Neighbourhood Support movement from 1983 to 2009, has never quite retired.

These days he's the patron, he still goes to the AGMs and other meetings when he's needed, and, sparked perhaps by this week's burglary and torching of a 92-year-old woman's home in Northland, he's preparing a notice for inclusion in the next issue of The Dazzler, the monthly newsletter which circulates throughout the village, including members of 12 Neighbourhood Support groups.

He doesn't do it regularly, but even in the seemingly idyllic and safe community he does have some current concerns for his neighbours.

"I am concerned at the number of unlocked villas and garages in our village," he says, and offers advice to keep them locked at almost all times, highlighting that there are thieves who look for opportunities to burgle homes even when the occupants are home, glued to the TV, in the shower or otherwise occupied.

As with so many other aspects of community safety, justice issues and social conscience, Napier has been a leader in Neighbourhood Support, which stems from the New York police initiative developed as Neighbourhood Watch in the 1970s.

The kick-start was apparently the rape and murder of a woman just metres from her front door on her way home from work, and the fact there seemed to have been witnesses who either did not intervene, or who did little to respond in any way at all. Not even calling the police when they heard someone screaming.

It was introduced to New Zealand by police by the end of the decade, and Mr Ward became chairman of Neighbourhood Watch in Napier in 1983.

He was there when it became Neighbourhood Support in 1987, when the national Neighbourhood Society was structured in 2000, and through to his retirement from the position in 2009 when he stood down from the position.

Significantly, Napier had major incidents in both 1983 and 1987 which helped interest in the movement.

In September 1983, there was the disappearance of 14-year-old Kirsa Jensen, never found and presumed to have been abducted and murdered, and in 1987 it was the abduction and murder of 6-year-old Teresa Cormack.

Advancing more than a quarter-century from those founding days and it's a flourishing organisation, the second-biggest in the country.

The organisation's June newsletter reported 869 groups in Napier city and surrounding rural areas, covering 8621 households.

There are two staff, including a fulltime field officer in Brian Hall, whose home was burgled just months into the job with the resounding message: "Practice what I preach".

It's different in Hastings however, where this week there were reported to be just 32 active groups, and moves are afoot to employ staff and establish other resources to get Neighbourhood Support closer to the levels of Napier where it's estimated to network out to 40 per cent of the population.

Essentially, it aims to make neighbourhoods safer, the removal of the word "Watch" having been a Napier initiative as Mr Ward strived for people to get to know their neighbours and neighbourhoods better - like the days his current neighbours would remember during the years after the war, as communities grew together, and shared the roles of fencing, concreting and planting each other's sections.

Mr Ward saw a general concept that rather than focusing on capturing the crook after the offence was committed, better communicating neighbourhoods would make it less likely the offences would be committed.

Secondarily, it has become a means of developing networks for use in liaising with communities in civil emergencies, and there there have also been times when Neighbour Support has tilted at the authorities, campaigning against the closure of community police bases and urging councils to help CCTV security surveillance on the streets.

Mr Hall said much of the job is aimed at making sure groups remain active, and to know who is in their area, and who is vulnerable.

It was a key topic at one of the group meetings he attended, and he said: "Often they are on their own, so they do need someone who is keeping an eye on them, to make sure they're safe."

Neighbourhood Support groups:

  • Share information, ideas and insights to minimise the opportunities for crime to occur and to improve safety for families and their neighbours;

  • Alert neighbours to any criminal activity in their neighbourhood;

  • Help prevent burglaries and car crime by keeping on eye on neighbours' properties in their absence;

  • Assist the police by reporting any suspicious persons or vehicles in the area;

  • Assist neighbours in times of need or emergency;

  • Identify local crime and safety problems, and with the help of each other and the many organisations Neighbourhood Support is linked to, resolve them;

  • Help neighbours to feel more confident and secure.

- Source: NZ Police

- Hawkes Bay Today

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