The true beginning of a false narrative: an investigation into the Hub’s Neighborhood Watch
Eight days after 16-year-old Norman Hawkesworth shot and killed Stephen Lanigan, John Winston found the murder weapon—a .22 caliber long pistol—while jogging in West Roxbury and contacted the police.
According to Suffolk County court documents, Hawkesworth had feigned injury, laying on a dark street, while two friends, teenage girls, hailed a passing car. Lanigan, 27, stopped and got out to help. Two years later, one of the girls testified in court: “Norman jumped up and he pulled the gun out of the bag and said, ‘Freeze… or else I’ll shoot,’” and then he shot Lanigan.
That was 1985, and the Winston gun discovery became one of the first stories the Boston Police Department cited to advertise its civilian vigilance program, Neighborhood Crime Watch. Since then, every Boston mayor and police commissioner has claimed that watch groups—residents surveilling their streets, attending group meetings, and reporting to the police—make the city safer. However, this investigation of the BPD’s 32-year Crime Watch program found:
- Crime Watch is a nebulous concept with poorly recorded performance metrics. There’s insufficient evidence to suggest Boston’s watch groups significantly reduce crime.
- Crime Watch was (and still is) used as a political token to manufacture a favorable image of community-police relations. For decades the BPD and former Boston Mayor Thomas Menino misled the public about how many active watch groups Crime Watch had in Boston.
- Crime Watch has a history of discrimination, controversial “broken windows” policing, and post-9/11 anti-terror surveillance, though this investigation found no current evidence of those practices.
- Crime Watch helped pioneer community policing in Boston, the strategy of current Police Commissioner William Evans.
- Over time, watch groups evolved into local power bases with influence over real estate development and city politics.
There is more to Crime Watch than crime. The only national story associated with such groups—the 2012 murder of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman, a Sanford, Florida, watch group member—has little relevance for Boston. This investigation found no current evidence of vigilantism.
Rather, Boston has a history of widespread local activism that has intersected with innumerable issues—traffic, race relations, drug abuse, real estate development, politics, and more—that Boston neighborhood activists care about. Watch groups are as diverse as the people in them.
In 1995, the BPD claimed Crime Watch had conducted 300 meetings where the unit met with a total of about 4,500 people in one year. Since then, tens of thousands of people—maybe more—have likely participated in the program.
Today, the BPD has more than 2,100 officers. And though the department serves as the official guardian of this municipality, that force is nonetheless likely outnumbered by a scattered network of roughly 394 watch groups that cover the city’s 12 police districts, making Crime Watch one of the largest surveillance and alleged crime-fighting networks in Boston.
Whether you knew it existed or not.
There are three popular narratives of neighborhood watch groups: Zimmerman vigilantes, nosy but harmless neighbors, and hands-off crime watchers—the “eyes and ears of the police.” In Boston, all three obscure the larger truth.
Boston’s Crime Watch formally began in 1985, but its immediate origins date back to the 1970s on West Canton Street in the South End. It was there that Christopher Hayes, a failed labor organizer who worked for Hood, began organizing watch groups. Members monitored their blocks, kept emergency whistles, held meetings at their homes, and called the police to report perceived crime. Often, the cops never came, Chris Hayes’ wife, Clare Hayes, said in an interview for this story.
In 1982, after Massachusetts passed Proposition 2½, a cap on property taxes that reduced funding for public services, the BPD began closing police stations and firing officers, recalled Kathleen O’Toole, then a BPD officer who later became commissioner. “We got to the point where we couldn’t answer enough 911 calls,” O’Toole said. Chris Hayes stepped in, and according to everyone who knew him, he was the ideal nonprofessional community organizer.
In 1985, Chris sold the concept of Crime Watch to the BPD and his childhood friend, former Mayor Raymond Flynn, Clare said. The idea was to organize neighbors, teach them how to report crime, and educate them on basic safety tips, like locking car doors. Some groups patrolled their blocks, a practice that no longer appears common, while Crime Watch also distributed suspect description forms and later published its own journal, The Neighborhood Observer.
At first, Chris was the program’s only employee. He had a desk, a phone, and Clare, who helped organize their South End group and grow the program. They both believed in hyperlocal neighborhood solidarity. And it was only after Chris “willed the program from just him to about nine employees,” Clare said, that the city of Boston also believed. (Asked how much the program costs to administer today, a BPD spokesperson suggested submitting a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request. However, a FOIA request revealed the BPD does not track the cost of Crime Watch. The city’s Open Checkbook did not specify that information either.)
When Chris Hayes died in January 2009, the Boston Globe published an obituary celebrating Crime Watch. Former Police Commissioner Paul Evans (brother of the current commissioner) praised the program, and Mayor Menino hailed it as “one of the most effective tools we have to fight crime.”
The obituary was proof, however superficial, that Crime Watch was now integrated into the BPD, city politics, and its neighborhoods—especially Jamaica Plain, Roxbury, Dorchester, the South End, and Mattapan, where, according to BPD crime data from 1996 to 2015, the crime rate was on average twice that of other districts’ combined average. At the same time, the public eulogy affirmed a prevailing narrative that was then reaffirmed in news coverage, political speeches, and BPD statements—that watch groups were a consistent example of residents and law enforcement officers combating urban decay, together.
But Crime Watch’s cherry-picked success stories helped form a false narrative.
On occasion, Crime Watch groups did stop or solve some crimes. Archives show that a Jamaica Plain group once helped police bust a crack house. In the South End, a group confronted a mother selling drugs from a baby carriage.
Often left out of the BPD’s boasts, however, is the reality that many watch groups don’t fight crime. In Dorchester, Margaret Lowell said her group’s main concern was regulating local traffic. Sometimes the intentions were racist. About 20 years ago in Hyde Park, white residents targeted their minority neighbors for surveillance. And throughout Boston, groups formed in response to violent crimes but then quickly vanished, having done little or nothing.
While the BPD misled the public for decades about how many active cohorts Crime Watch had in Boston, Mayor Menino was holding groups up as symbols of community policing.
The inflated number of active groups, amplified by favorable news coverage and advertised by City Hall and BPD officials in their annual reports and statements, created a politically advantageous image of Crime Watch as a shining example of neighborhood-police cooperation. The more groups there appeared to be, the more the BPD looked like it was improving community relations.
Today the Crime Watch unit has three employees and a secretary, and still keeps a confidential, citywide list of active civilian groups. According to Crime Watch director Kerry Ryan, that roster is updated at least annually, but that wasn’t always the case. Until at least 2005, the list was inaccurate, according to BPD annual reports and former high-ranking officers who were interviewed for this story. No one regularly checked if groups were active from one year to the next, despite the numbers being celebrated in reports.
Between 2003 and 2004, the number of active Crime Watch groups dropped, without explanation, from 1,221 to around 200, possibly because of updated accounting. But if there was a check in 2004, the practice didn’t stick. Duncan Shipley Dalton, a Harvard Kennedy School student on a summer fellowship working for the BPD, found Crime Watch did not track groups. “If you said, ‘What groups met this month,’” Dalton told the Boston Globe in 2005, “nobody could tell you.”
The BPD knew that groups often disappeared. “Someone gets shot on the street, you start a neighborhood crime watch, but it’s hard to sustain interest,” said Wallace Tilford, a BPD community service officer who has been with Crime Watch for about 23 years.
These days, Tilford added, “We’re not in the numbers business.” Besides, he explained, if many new groups started forming, that might signal a rise (or perceived rise) in crime, and the BPD’s inability to curb it, so fewer groups could be a positive development. Nonetheless, a lack of accurate data has never stopped some administrators from reporting an inflated number of active groups.
In 2012, former Mayor Menino wanted some fodder for his annual State of the City speech. He wanted to cite the number of active groups and announce that the BPD was adding more than a hundred new groups citywide. But according to Carolyn MacNeil, who served as Crime Watch director from 2008 to 2015, “it was a rolling number, and it was really hard to accurately pin down what made for an active group. There was no clear criteria.”
When Menino gave the speech, Tilford was home watching TV, and he remembers thinking at the time, “What the fuck? Did he call anyone here to ask us what we’re doing?”
Barry Mullen, a now-retired decade-long watch group leader in Dorchester, believed “Mayor Menino used the groups for his own political gain.” However, he believed Mayor Menino also genuinely “cared about the groups.”
The list controversy went further than “how many.” It also included “who,” and “where.” As Crime Watch grew, politicians wanted member names, addresses, and telephone numbers for political mail and fundraising. Some in the BPD wanted that information, too.
Crime Watch directors Chris Hayes and Judith Wright fought against sharing the list. They valued their unit’s independence and watch groups’ privacy. But their colleague MacNeil opened it to the others within BPD anyway, saying she wanted officers to have access to helpful neighborhood activists. That means BPD officers have the names of group organizers, as well as phone numbers, addresses, meeting times, and place.
In 32 years, Crime Watch changed from a one-man show that few powerful people cared about to an alleged BPD crime-fighting surveillance network that a mayor used to get re-elected and promote a positive image of community-police relations. During that time, the appearance of success became more important than accurately measuring success.
There’s a 1996 photograph of Crime Watch founder Chris Hayes. In it, he stands before a podium on the Mass Ave Bridge, with the Charles River and iconic Prudential Tower in the background, speaking to a crowd. In front of Hayes is Mayor Menino, linking hands with city officials, all with arms raised in a chain of triumphant Vs. It’s an image that conveys the victories watch groups have had over crime throughout Boston. It’s also an image that is not supported by scholarly research or available data.
THEORIES, STUDIES, PROBLEMS
A review of decades of public statements—and dozens of interviews with group members, Crime Watch employees, and BPD officials—reveals an almost unanimous belief that watch groups significantly reduce crime. But that claim is based on spotty anecdotal evidence and marginally relevant or disproven research. Watch groups are poorly understood. There’s little interest in evaluating them, so there are few high-quality studies. The murder of Trayvon Martin did not change that.
For background on Boston’s Crime Watch phenomenon, it helps to go back to the summer of 1982, the year researchers James Wilson and George Kelling published their now famous “broken windows” theory, arguing that relatively minor and nonviolent signs of social disorder like litter and graffiti breed more dangerous crime. Kelling traveled across the US researching local anti-crime programs, and in Boston he attended about 30 community meetings where he saw residents distribute copies of his article and where he met Chris Hayes.
Broken windows was popular with Hayes, early watch groups, and the BPD, but the theory lost credibility over time. For example, a 2015 study in Boston found that broken windows signs “were weakly predictive of future violence and disorder, if at all.”
Asked about additional research on watch groups, Maria Cheevers, director of BPD research and development, described them as “a strategy/tool that increases collective efficacy,” defined as the combination of community social cohesion and residents willing to intervene in their neighborhood. She cited a 1997 study that concluded collective efficacy reduced violent crime. But when asked for comment, Robert Sampson, a Harvard social sciences professor and that study’s co-author, wrote in an email, “I would first say that I do not equate collective efficacy with neighborhood watch groups.”
Sampson was not aware of studies testing collective efficacy in Boston and noted that results of community crime prevention programs “vary a lot depending on the program” and other factors, such as the density of neighborhood organizations.
Former BPD Commissioner Paul Evans said that in his experience neighborhoods that engaged police, often through watch groups, experienced a higher reduction of crime than those that did not. He cited another 1997 study, which, like Sampson’s work, did not examine Boston or watch groups.
“Statistics show establishing a strong neighborhood watch group leads to crime reduction,” Kerry Ryan said. The current Crime Watch director cited a 2008 analysis of existing neighborhood watch studies; that research concluded there is “some evidence” that watch groups reduced crime, but also noted that “some programs work well while others appear to work less well or not at all.” Which one was Boston?
The authors of that study declined to be interviewed for this article, but in their work conceded that they did not know how groups reduced crime or why some groups failed. They called for additional research, which never came. The authors also urged police to conduct their own evaluations, which the BPD never did.
SEE SOMETHING, SAY SOMETHING
Like the BPD, Crime Watch and its groups have a history of controversial practices, from broken windows policing, to racial profiling, to post-9/11 anti-terror surveillance. At the same time, Crime Watch promoted community policing long before it was popular in Boston, an approach now embraced by Commissioner Evans as well as many community advocates, though not everyone agrees on how such measures should be implemented.
The lack of rigorous research on both national and local programs may help partially explain why Crime Watch and some of its groups followed questionable practices, sometimes counter to the roots of community policing. Without an empirical compass, Crime Watch was more easily steered toward the next big thing, like post-9/11 anti-terrorism. And because watch groups include Bostonians with biases, Crime Watch experienced at least some instances of racial discrimination.
“During the 1990s in Hyde Park, Roslindale, some of it was racially motivated,” Tilford, who is black, explained. “People wanted to surveil minorities. People moving into the neighborhood looked like me.”
“One of the meetings I went to,” he added, “I knocked on the door and see a living room full of 30 or 40 white people, and they look at me like, ‘Who are you?’ And I’m like, ‘I’m Wallace.’”
This investigation found no current evidence of watch groups practicing such blatant racial discrimination. However, while race relations have supposedly improved—according to Tilford, the city has become a lot more tolerant—post-9/11 fervor briefly reoriented Crime Watch in a new, possibly dangerous direction.
To obtain federal funds marked for homeland security—at the expense of community policing programs—the BPD briefly repackaged Crime Watch in anti-terrorism wrapping and sold it as frontline surveillance.
“I can’t tell you this definitively,” former Police Commissioner O’Toole said, “but I wouldn’t be surprised if I was thinking that if I could find the homeland security nexus, I’d be more likely to obtain federal grant money.” So Crime Watch was sold along the lines of “see something, say something.”
No current or former BPD employee or watch group member interviewed for this article believed Crime Watch contributed to homeland security. The BPD counterterrorism pitch was likely about money, emblematic of a national shift towards terrorism-related city policing.
But while Boston’s Crime Watch followed disproven or controversial national trends, never yielding any real measurable crime-related accomplishments beyond anecdotes, the unit has continued promoting community policing for decades.
Community policing is typically rooted in educating civilians to access services or file complaints, establish networks, and build relationships with cops. That’s what Hayes tried to do. For example—and there are many examples—in an unpublished 1984 letter to the Boston Globe, the Crime Watch founder highlighted the importance of residents “working in close cooperation with local police.”
“An active, engaged community works to hold the police accountable,” said former Police Commissioner Paul Evans. “Holding our feet to the fire is what those groups should be doing.”
MacNeil, Crime Watch director from 2008 to 2015, had another view. Watch groups, she said, probably have “less influence as a law enforcement entity and more as a political entity.”
But that does not mean watch groups are powerless.
The debate over the question—do watch groups reduce crime?—was never resolved. Instead, it faded away. Researchers stopped asking, the question was ignored, and the BPD and city politicians made their claims for 32 years.
Last summer, at National Night Out, an annual BPD-community relations event that took place at several locations across the Hub, current Mayor Marty Walsh and Police Commissioner William Evans celebrated the city’s crime-fighting neighbors. Some residents received “crime fighter of the year” awards; in Dorchester, an officer sang about neighbors helping neighbors.
But the crime-fighting label is a limiting one. Like the contrived image of neighbors stopping bad guys in their tracks, it obscures the additional roles watch groups play in Boston, especially their influence over real estate development and city politics.
Crime has always been the main focus of Crime Watch in Boston. Group members have often said that a prevalence of drugs, gangs, murder, assault, etc. motivated them to do “something.” But that “something,” multiplied by three decades of neighbors shaking hands and attending meetings, had unintended consequences. Over the years, according to city archives and interviews with city officials as well as watchers, some groups became small power bases with influence in local politics and real estate development. In the process, some groups became or were folded into preexisting civic associations, local nonprofits vaguely defined as social welfare organizations.
City archives tell part of that story. In 1991, after a “rash of muggings,” Dorchester residents formed a watch group. Their full title was the Crawford/Howland/Ruthven/Wenonah/Waumbeck Blockwatch. After a few years, the group expanded and became a neighborhood association. They called themselves a “political force,” and they were right.
In 1994, VinFen, a nonprofit health service, wanted to make 37 Crawford Street in Dorchester a center for people with AIDS. In a letter to Mayor Menino, the blockwatch opposed the project, and according to longtime member Bob Redd, residents defeated the proposal. (Redd said his group was not against AIDS programs, but thought his area was being saturated with nonprofits that would “bust up” the neighborhood.)
Civic associations sometimes have the power to approve or reject building projects, even though their board members aren’t publically elected. In some cases, developers must sell their plan to these associations at a neighborhood meeting, making for a process that appears susceptible to corruption. Just last year, the Globe found a developer paid off a South End civic association for its support. Nevertheless, city agencies, including the Zoning Board of Appeal and the Boston Planning and Development Agency, appear to take the views of civic associations seriously.
The same is true of city councilors. Not all neighborhoods receive equal attention or resources, but vocal, organized watch groups and civic associations may be more likely to have their complaints heard. Nine of 13 Boston councilors personally attend or dispatch a staff member to civic associations or watch group meetings at least once a month (the other four councilors may do the same, but did not respond to a request for comment).
“City councilors always wanted to be aware of when [watch group] meetings were, and what were the issues in the different parts of their jurisdiction,” said Tilford.
Concerns related to both real estate and crime merged in the policing of so-called problem properties, which the BPD considers any place that police have been called to at least four times in a 12-month period. Watch groups have worked with the BPD to identify and police these buildings.
In Dorchester, 18 foreclosed triple-deckers on Hendry, Coleman, and Clarkson Streets prompted the ongoing attention of organized neighbors. Eventually, “the city acquired four foreclosed properties at 15, 17, 19, and 21 Hendry and renovated them for resale,” Kerry Ryan wrote in response to questions about Crime Watch’s anti-crime efforts.
The murky history and operation of Crime Watch makes measuring its effects difficult. In addition to citing privacy concerns for her unit’s refusal to provide data or access to watch group members for this article, Kerry Ryan said that the city retained no Crime Watch archives. In fact, there were 19 boxes, which the BPD wanted $9,255 to process before allowing access.
What is known is that there are roughly 394 watch groups in Boston. They are also support groups, political groups, social groups, civic groups, and occasionally crime-fighting groups. They play many roles, and if you live in Boston, there’s probably one in your neighborhood.
Daniel DeFraia is journalist and American Studies PhD candidate at Boston University, where he’s writing a dissertation on the historical relationship between intelligence agencies and the US news media.
This article was produced in collaboration with the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism.