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Neighborhood Watch Programs Could Get State Funding Under Proposed Bill

(St. Louis Public Radio)
Communities in high crime areas could receive state money to match local and private funding.

The Missouri Legislature is considering a proposal to provide state funds for neighborhood watch programs in high crime areas around the state.

Rep. Michael Butler, D-St. Louis, sponsored the bill, which would create a state fund to match money for neighborhood watch programs in high crime areas around the state.

The model for the kinds of programs the bill would fund started in Lafayette Square, which is in Butler’s district.  At a public hearing this week, Butler told members of the House Committee on Local Government that Lafayette Square’s program helped turn the neighborhood into one of the safest in the city. He said the program was funded by area business owners who were fed up with the petty crimes that scared away visitors and discouraged people from buying houses in the neighborhood.

Butler said Lafayette Square's model has four parts: unarmed citizen patrols; victim support; impact statement to get criminals locked up; and orders of protection.  The program also has a police sub-station that keeps patrol officers closer to the neighborhood when they need to file paperwork.

Part of what makes the program so successful, Butler said, is that it’s not just about preventing crime. It’s about building a community. That’s why he calls it a “neighborhood ownership” program.

“So, this isn’t just about watching out for your neighbors, it’s about building a community,” Butler said. “The biggest community involvement part of this model is just to fix sidewalks, to fix street lamps, to help write letters and bringing the community together to work with city government and the police to rid crime from the neighborhood.”

Credit (Courtesy of Missouri House of Representatives)
State Representative Michael Butler, D-St. Louis

The cost of establishing such a program is about $7,000 a year, Butler said.  The money helps fund the substation, and a St. Louis Police Department neighborhood liaison. It also helps pay for training for the citizens on patrol and for victim support.

Since Lafayette Square started its program in 2009, 17 other St. Louis neighborhoods have started similar neighborhood watches.  But, Butler said, many area don’t have the funding to turn their neighborhoods around on their own.

Butler’s bill, H.B. 1169, would allow the state to match local and private funds to help pay for similar programs. The state's director of the department of public safety would review applications and would administer the neighborhood watch fund.

Bringing Communities Together

Four people testified in favor of the bill, including St. Louis Alderman Shane Cohn, whose ward includes Dutchtown.  He said Dutchtown has seen a 60 percent drop in property crimes since residents organized the neighborhood watch, but the program does more than fight crime:

“This is not just about the police and the prosecutors but this is also about building communities and building neighborhoods and it’s been a phenomenal experience,” Cohn said.

Rachel Smith, a prosecutor in the circuit attorney’s office since 1990, also spoke at the public hearing.  She said she's never seen a program that is more effective at getting to the root of crime than the neighborhood watch model started in Lafayette Square.  She said the residents there approached crime as a social problem. They decided that they needed to hold the prosecutor, courts and police accountable for spending their tax dollars most effectively.

Smith said the program's victim support efforts are one of the reasons the neighborhood watches have been so effective.

“When you look at the data, it’s because the necessary victims and witnesses don’t participate. A lot of it is they simply don’t know how important they are,” Smith said. “They also don’t feel that their neighborhood has their back.”

With Lafayette Square’s program, participants in the neighborhood watch team are given training, undergo a background check and sign a confidentiality agreement.  Then, when a crime happens, they reach out to victims and witnesses. They provide the emotional support victims might need and they make sure victims and witnesses go and testify against the criminals in court.

Under the proposed bill, funding would be available to any community, neighborhood or city ward where the crime rates are unusually high.

No one spoke in opposition to the proposal. 

Shula is the executive editor at St. Louis Public Radio.

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