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Late Tuesday night, Green Party Councillor Patrick Costello was canvassing in Crumlin. There had been one or two break-ins recently, he said. Local residents had set up a WhatsApp group to confer.
Traditional neighborhood watch set-ups can be too bureaucratic it struck him. It puts people off, says Costello.
But increasingly residents in neighborhoods are turning to social media, and especially WhatsApp, to share snippets of goings-on on their streets.
“I find now that residents’ groups and my mates have WhatsApp groups for the road,” says Costello. “All the info about security and potential threats goes into the Whatsapp groups. A lot of the time it’s informal.”
How Things Change
Traditional neighborhood watch groups have been around since the 1980s in Ireland, says Sergeant Eamon Lynch, of the Community Policing Unit at Pearse Street Garda Station.
They tend to ebb and flow with the level of problems in an area. “What normally happens is you get a street ambassador, and they would be the point of contact for that immediate street or area,” Lynch says.
Neighborhood watches usually form when problems come up. Say, residents are worried about substance abuse or alcohol abuse in an area, he says.
In formal neighborhood watch set-ups, residents talk with a Garda liaison at regular meetings at a police station or local hotel. Gardaí update them on issues in the area, or residents bring up issues.
“You’re relying on people to go out of their way at a community level […] it very much does rely on people volunteering their time and effort,” he said.
Canice McKee, secretary of a neighborhood-watch group in Portobello, says the meetings can be a big deal to organise. They have about three a year. “It’s been going more than ten years in the area,” he says.
On some streets, residents use WhatsApp to keep each other in the loop. “Sometimes they go out in pairs to monitor,” says McKee
Lynch says he’s heard of residents taking a turn around the street together. “But it’s not something we necessarily endorse or advocate,” he says. If increased Garda presence is needed, other gardaí from resting units can help.
“Sometimes the roles get mixed up. Sometimes, people think that the role, when they’re doing that, is to engage and prevent,” he says. He encourages residents to report what they see, not to challenge it themselves.
In Palmerstown, Alan Hayes is a member of the local neighborhood watch with a clear chain of command.
Each street has an area coordinator who manages the WhatsApp group in each area, says Hayes, who also moderates a Facebook page for the group. “As we receive reports of suspicious activity, we send a message to each coordinator and they send it on to the neighbors.”
Hayes says they use WhatsApp broadcast lists for one-way messaging. That way, people only get messages from the moderator, not all the replies too.
“I don’t know if it’s luck, but in areas where it’s active and used well, there was a reduction in anti-social behaviour and burglaries,” he says.
Household burglaries fall by an average of 40 percent in neighborhoods where the WhatsApp systems were used, found research involving 88 neighbourhoods in Tilburg in the Netherlands.
Sometimes, people post defamatory messages to the Facebook page, says Hayes. There’s always the risk of misidentification.
Hayes says he deletes defamatory messages right away. “We also have a responsibility against people being malicious to others in the community.”