Neighbourhood Watch (or: how I learned to stop worrying and log off)

Photo by Rene Böhmer on Unsplash

You’re out for a late night stroll, and walking down Algonquin St. you pass by a suspicious looking character. The man begins walking, inches from your side, seemingly unaware of the unsettling nature of this.

“Uh… How’s it going?” you ask awkwardly.

“Fine.” He replies.

You feel uneasy, you speed up. He is a few feet behind you now at least, but it’s clear that he’s making an effort at keeping pace. You’re approaching your next turn.

Do you take it? Would you rather be home sooner or avoid leading this unsettling character to your house?

You take the turn, and slow up. He follows you around the corner. You’re two streets from home.

What do you do?

This actually happened to me a few months back. I slowed down to the point where he had to pass me. I perceived he was still gauging the distance between us. I pretended I’d be making the next turn, he slowed as if to follow me, and I continued forward. The next turn was home, and I had made up my mind to get there as fast as possible.

I cross my road, walking as if I’m to continue forward. As soon as he turns his head after checking my trajectory, I turned and hustled down my street. Behind me I heard him stop, and he too turned down my street, despite just having attempting to convince me that he would be continuing down the street we were on. I hurried across my yard, up the front porch, and I unlocked the door to safety.

Whether his intentions were nefarious or not, he made me uneasy, and feel unsafe in my own neighbourhood. I think I reacted well, I’m not really sure. Do you call the Police on someone for being awkward if it makes you uneasy?

Honestly, I just felt less safe in North Bay that night and it really, really bummed me out.

Crime statistics in most cities vary to a degree year by year, small fluctuations observable along with the longer term trends in the rise and fall of crime recorded. However, the ultimate consideration of whether a city is safe largely lies in the feelings and perceptions held by its residents. Regardless of what the statistics say, people’s personal experience and relative exposure to crime will shape their perceptions on whether or not they feel safe.

Technology complicates the equation further. While communications advances in the internet age have supplied law enforcement officers with better tools with which to keep us safe, it has also fundamentally changed the way information about crime travels throughout a population. With social media, “word of mouth” has some serious range, and this can pose a real challenge in helping a city’s residents feel safe.

The neighbourhood watch Facebook groups for the city of North Bay (of which there are at least 3) and the evolution of their content demonstrates this. They also provide a concerning window to the minds of residents who have become frustrated with crime in the city, and have lost faith in the system all together.

The two main “neighbourhood watch” groups on Facebook. A third group is called “boots on the ground”.

The groups currently operating emerged between 2017-2018. Initially, the groups were online communities where members could share incidents of crime as they experienced them, spreading awareness of ongoing crime in North Bay. Most of the early posts were about attempted (and successful) break and enters, warnings of suspicious people trying car doors at night, stolen bikes, news stories about crime from local outlets, you get the idea.

Sharing information about crime activity is a pretty smart and efficient way for citizens to feel they are mitigating the risk of crime. One of the first things many victims of crime do upon discovering they’ve been wronged is to warn neighbours of the situation. These online groups are simply the same strategy with a larger range.

Becoming aware of ongoing incidents helps citizens to adjust their actions accordingly, and reduce the risk of themselves becoming a victim. You see a post about people breaking into cars, you double check that yours is locked that night, simple as that.

According to a recent McLeans study on crime in Canada, North Bay does have higher rates of ‘assault’, ‘sexual assault’, ‘break and enters’ and ‘cocaine trafficking’ than the provincial average. Obviously this is concerning, but when one considers the city’s geographical position as a gateway to the North, Western Canada as well as Northern Quebec, the idea that drugs would travel through and be prevalent in our city is really not overly surprising.

Comparison of rates of crime in North bay with the Ontario average (Data sourced from McLeans 2019 Crime Report)

As the groups evolved, other promising new types of posts emerge: promising efforts at making the community better, like food drives, found and lost items, and needle cleanups. So the group makes people more aware of crime, and organizes community based initiatives, what’s the deal?

The deal, from my perspective, is the thin line between awareness and paranoia.

There is plenty of evidence of group members flaunting extremely pessimistic attitudes towards the city’s law enforcement. In particular, the summer of 2019 saw the groups explode into contentious arguments on posts in the group about how the crime wave in North Bay was being handled by law enforcement. Posts riddled the groups about drug users and vagrants invading the city and stealing anything they could to get their next fix. In the context of a serious opiod crisis in our country, this brought the various perspectives held by members of the groups to light in discussions on the posts. Some members are very compassionate towards addicted, while others flaunt overtly violent and dehumanizing sentiments about their very existence.

Compare the post about understanding the human level of addiction issues (left) with the comment where ‘people’ is literally put in quotation marks to imply they aren’t worthy of the title (above). (Screenshots from North Bay and Area Neighbourhood Watch *Crime Watch* Facebook Group)

Up until late August of 2019, I was a member of these groups. I found myself concerned at the number of posts, so much crime, and a city, my home, seemingly slipping into despair. That is until I realized the way the exposure to these posts were impacting my perception of what I was seeing in my day to day life. I was finishing my masters thesis at the time and was home during the day on most days. Working on the front porch, I realized I was theorizing about the potentially nefarious motives of every passerby.

The group itself had evolved in much the same fashion. The constant exposure to nothing but local bad news bred paranoia. Posts with clear and evident wrongdoing had been replaced with posts describing anyone walking at night as suspicious, even with literally no evidence that any wrongdoing was taking place. The sites were turning the people of North Bay against each other.

Posts like this one are a good use of the system. Unfortunately in many posts, there isn’t any clear cut type of wrongdoing. (Screenshot from North Bay and Area Neighbourhood Watch *Crime Watch* Facebook Group)

People had been exposed to powerful anecdotes. Now I don’t mean to assert that crime in the city isn’t a real problem, or even that we weren’t witnessing a spike in incidents, but the stories told by victims of crimes, and the increase in exposure to these stories had a powerful impact on the mindset of groups members. Speaking for myself, I certainly found my perspective had been shaded for the worse, and I simply didn’t feel safe going for the late night walks through North Bay’s streets I had so come to enjoy over the past few years. Like I said, the balance between awareness and paranoia is a delicate one. Notions like “if you see something, say something” sound like a great, proactive way to prevent crime. In reality, they often devolve into slogans for pitting citizens against each other, fostering climates of suspicion and paranoia.

Equally concerning are the sentiments expressed in the groups about law enforcement itself. For example, on a post about a couple that experienced sexual harassment walking home one night, one user commented:

“right off the hop, defend yourselves, as by the time police respond you could be dead, last time I used the police and judicial system it failed me miserably, there won’t be a next time I call the police for help”

(All spelling and grammar errors are preserved from the original facebook comment. Username withheld.)

While the idea of being capable of self defence isn’t crazy at all, the idea that you wouldn’t ever contact the police in an emergency is a terrible sentiment to be spreading. This person obviously had a negative experience, fair enough. Police respond to thousands of calls a year, and satisfaction is never going to be 100%. For that to be posted as part of the dialogue, however, as if it were somehow as valid as other opinions is, well, sort of laughable.

An additional problem comes from the inner workings of Facebook itself. The platform’s algorithm for the exposure of comments on posts is dependant on the activity they generate in the form of replies and reactions. Under this system, posts that generate controversy and active (and often toxic) debate are equally exposed to those that are widely agreed with. Is this balance? In my opinion the fringe positions (that can often be quite troubling) receive far too much exposure on the Facebook platform.

In the context of Neighbourhood Watch groups, you could see this issue with system, as it fosters extreme negative views about the city’s law enforcement by presenting them in the same manner that more reasonable opinions would be. The groups facilitate the impression that many people have lost faith in the system, regardless of the reality of whether or not the average North Bay citizen can expect quick and effective responses from their police force.

By the time I left the groups near the end of last summer, I was absolutely exhausted by their content. The arguments had become filled with vitriol. Worse was that beyond the discourse heating up, the actual actions of group members had become pretty concerning.

The homeless had set up communities of “tent cities” around North Bay. Some members of the group decided that they were absolutely sure the homeless were responsible for particular crimes (note their actions were unsanctioned by the groups administrators). They sought to reclaim stolen property and seek retribution by raiding the camps while their residents were not around. Whether these members were correct or not in their assumptions, their vigilantism represents a lack of faith that law enforcement would solve their issues, and ultimately keep them and their property safe.

Personally, I detest this sort of reaction. To perpetrate crime, and forgo the system completely in the name of stopping crime sounds something like fighting fire with fire to me. The general lack of understanding of addictions and homelessness is also very concerning, and many seem to discount these peoples experience, and to a large degree, dehumanize them. Additionally, while some perpetrators of crimes may be homeless, as North Bay’s Police Chief Tod points out, many of the victims of these vigilantes were likely innocent and down on their luck. Talk about salt in a wound.

They are not always associated with drug use or criminal activities some are related to poverty and homelessness… There are criminals who are actually taking advantage of people who are living in a vulnerable situation”

North Bay Police Chief Tod on tent cities. (Dawson, August 23, 2019) Police Chief says tent cities not just a North Bay problem

One major feature of the 2019 “crime wave” was a ton of stolen bicycles. Bike thefts are difficult for law enforcement, because without a report that the bike is stolen including the serial number by a responsible owner, there’s really not much that can be done. Even if this is done, bike thieves often aim to break the bikes down to sell the metal, or reassemble with various parts to sell, making the original bicycle hard to track. All this meaning the bikes in their functioning state don’t necessarily last long after their disappearance. The group showed lots of evidence of people bringing larger quantities of bikes than would be practical for personal use to locations, which the groups called “bike chop shops”, where they would presumably meet their demise.

I bring this particular aspect up because it shows how timeless the issue truly is, in spite of the modern technology and its impact of our experience of it. By the discourse in the group, you’d truly think the brazen bike thefts represented a new era of crime in the city. In the book The Beat Light: North Bay Police History 1882-2007 by Wayne Lebelle and Victor McClenaghan however, I found the following:

“In 1969, the Department investigated 1,438 cases of theft, deemed much like the cases of stolen bicycles 75 years earlier. “Many citizens are careless with their moveable property and it seems there are more and more people in our community that would rather steal the things they want, than buy them”

Chief Wotherspoon quoted in (Lebelle & McClenaghan, 2009) The Beat Light: North Bay Police History 1882-2007

For the record, that a 50 year old quote from a police chief about the same problem we’re having today. As a bonus, it references the prevalence of the phenomenon at the turn of the 20th century as well.

As much as things change, they really do stay the same.

The groups still operate and members are very active. Many well meaning members do make a difference in the community through outreach. Positives aside however, the fact that the groups had a profound role in the emergence of vigilantism in North Bay raises both concerns and questions:

What could North Bay Police do better to prevent the erosion of public confidence?

What is an appropriate response for citizens to crime in their communities?

What stands between us and North Bay feeling safer?

What role can law enforcement play in addressing the opiod crisis?

and, more central to the point I’m trying to make here:

How do we find a way to balance awareness and paranoia when it comes to local crime?

I know I can’t answer these questions, but I do know that as a community, it’s important that we actively deliberate and consider them, because our community will inevitably become what we build it to be.


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2 thoughts on “Neighbourhood Watch (or: how I learned to stop worrying and log off)

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