When criminals started kicking in doors and stealing computers, TVs and jewelry, neighbors in the tiny town of Thunderbolt, Georgia, banded together to start a Neighborhood Watch.

“I said, ‘We’ve got to be nosy neighbors — that’s the only way we’re going to stop crime,” says Wendy Hall, former president of the group.

A few months later, thanks to tips from those “nosy neighbors,” police caught the crooks — two men who were casing houses by knocking on doors and offering to rake leaves, Hall says.

As in Thunderbolt, it’s often a crime or other incident that sparks the formation of a Neighborhood Watch group, says Michelle Boykin, senior communications director for the National Crime Prevention Council.

“It might be a rash of break-ins, some drug activity reported in the neighborhood or a child being approached by strangers as they’re walking to school,” Boykin says.

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A Neighborhood Watch serves two important functions:

Neighborhood Watch sign (Photo: Paul Brennan/Shutterstock) 

Tips off cops. Members of a Neighborhood Watch act as eyes and ears for law enforcement, Boykin says. They look for suspicious activity, call 911 and spread the word about incidents or crimes. 

Sends a message to criminals. If a criminal sees Neighborhood Watch signs and spots you and your neighbors patrolling every night (maybe even with your dogs), they won’t feel welcome. “Criminals look for opportunity,” she says, and patrols take away that opportunity. 

Want to start a Neighborhood Watch in your area? Follow these seven steps:

1. Gauge interest. Put the word out among your neighbors to see who’s interested in starting a group. Participation is crucial to a good Neighborhood Watch, says Hall. You need enough people to have a block captain for each block (or every couple of blocks) who’s willing to attend extra meetings, help with special events and notify neighbors about crimes or upcoming meetings, she adds.

2. Partner with police. To start an official Neighborhood Watch, you have to team up with local law enforcement. Why? Because the police will listen to concerns, inform you about crime statistics and specific problems in your area and help you get training.

3. Hold a kickoff meeting. Set a date for an initial meeting with interested neighbors and local police officers. Identify your neighborhood’s top three concerns and create a plan for addressing those, the National Sheriff’s Association recommends. Use a sign-in sheet to get names, emails and phone numbers. You can register your group for free with National Neighborhood Watch. You have the option of paying a membership fee ($7.50 to $15 per person for a group, depending on the size) to receive perks like suggested meeting topics, meeting agendas, checklists and observation logs.

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4. Get training. Work with law enforcement to get trained on what type of activity to watch for and how to make homes more secure. The National Neighborhood Watch offers self-paced training online for Neighborhood Watch leaders. And some police departments will send officers to do home security assessments for interested homeowners. “It’s about being proactive,” Boykin says.

5. Get the lay of the land. Figure out who lives where and which houses are vacant. You should have a map of your neighborhood, Hall says. While you’re doing this, get more names of interested neighbors.

6. Recruit window watchers. Ask homemakers, retirees and work-at-home neighbors to sign up as “window watchers” — people who agree to be extra vigilant, especially during the day when others are at work. “People think about crime happening at night, but it also happens during the day when people are away,” says Hall.

7. Find a way to get the word out. It’s crucial to have a way to communicate quickly, Hall says. You can use email blasts, a private Facebook page or even Nextdoor.com, a social networking site for crime prevention that allows you to register your cell number and receive urgent alerts from your neighbors.

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In Thunderbolt, Georgia, the increased vigilance has paid off. A few years ago, a local kid who knew Hall’s granddaughter broke into Hall’s home and swiped some prescription medication. A neighbor who was outside sawing wood to rebuild his deck jotted down the license plate number on the getaway car and called police. The next day, cops caught the burglar.

“Our crime rate has gone down,” Hall says. “It’s not much of a problem now.”

Allie Johnson is an award-winning freelance consumer writer with a degree in magazine journalism. She lives in Georgia with her husband and two dogs.