By Constantinos Psillides
COMMUNITY policing has ever been a philosophy the police had wanted to introduce, but getting residents to report on what was happening in their neighbourhoods was always frowned upon, as people didn’t want to be considered police informants.
But desperate times call for desperate measures, and increased levels of crime in recent years have made people take a different, more favourable look at this initiative.
Chief Inspector Petros Pattouras, the man in charge of the Crime Prevention Unit, told the Sunday Mail that he had long wanted to introduce a system of neighbourhood watches. He got his chance in May 2011.
“There was a robbery, involving an elderly couple who owned a betting shop in Dali village in the Nicosia district. The robbers were waiting in a car, ambushed the couple and stole around €3,000,” Pattouras recalled. “Dali’s mayor went on TV the next day and railed against the police, saying that he would take the law into his own hands since police could not protect them. The very next day I called him up, set up a meeting and proposed the neighbourhood watch programme. He accepted and that’s how we got the ball rolling.”
And roll it did. According to Pattouras, in only three years the programme is now being implemented in 21 municipalities and 63 communities, while six more municipalities and 42 communities have expressed an interest. Nicosia municipality came on board in January 2012 and by 2013 other municipalities in the district such as Engomi and Strovolos had also joined.
“People’s response has been phenomenal. We are set to do presentations almost every night till the end of July,” said Pattouras, adding that the neighbourhood watch programme has currently over 20,000 members islandwide.
The crime figures have been equally remarkable. According to Pattouras, crime rates have dropped 30 per cent in areas with a neighbourhood watch scheme. In Dali, where the programme started, he puts the drop as high as 60 per cent.
Municipalities enrolled in the neighbourhood watch programme are given signs to place in the community. Even the act of putting up a warning sign acts as a deterrent to criminals, according to police.
“We were met with plenty scepticism when we first launched this initiative. In Dali we started with only 50 members. In the beginning, people refused to take part since they didn’t want to be considered police informants,” said Pattouras.
“Slowly, we convinced them that this is not the case at all and that we were merely asking people to keep an eye out for their friends and neighbours to discourage criminals. This approach worked and currently, in Dali alone, we have 4,500 members.”
Pattouras explained that none of the neighbourhood watch members give testimonies to police stations or appear in court.
“They just phone in when they see something suspicious and we take it from there. We follow back on every single report,” he said. “We let members know whether their report led to an arrest or if it was simply a dead-end.”
Prospective members have to attend a two-hour police seminar and join a local community network.
“They observe and report. Nothing else. We are perfectly clear on that. Members are not to engage anyone under any circumstance. That is a job for trained police officers,” Pattouras said.
Besides training people how to keep an eye out for criminal activity, the neighbourhood watch programme also promotes community networking with friends and neighbours, as well as some simple safety tips.
“Our aim is twofold. The first is to teach people to communicate with each other to be on the lookout for one another. For example, if someone plans on going for a vacation, he should notify neighbours so they can keep an eye on his house when he is gone,” he said.
The second goal is to promote a spirit of cooperation with the police. For example, whenever the police are on the lookout for a suspect, they notify the local authorities via text message. The text is then forwarded to the phone of every member on the neighbourhood watch list.
Pattouras gives an example of how the system works in practice.
“We recently sent a message saying that we were looking for a dark-coloured Honda Civic. A woman who had received the message saw a suspicious car fitting the description and contacted us. Two units were dispatched and cut off the vehicle near Kofinou,” he said. “With the items we discovered in their car, we managed to solve 56 burglary cases worth half a million euros and arrest all the members of a burglary gang. And it all started with the programme.”
Other successes include the arrest of a man who was scamming people by telling them he had not been paid by his boss and the arrest of three men wanted by the Interpol.
Pattouras believes that the programme’s biggest success is making people feel safer. “Winning society’s trust, that’s the biggest win here. We increased the feeling of security while at the same time teaching people how to effectively cooperate with the police.”
Registration forms are available through municipality and community websites. Forms for Nicosia residents are available at (http://www.nicosia.org.cy/el-GR/Files/Documents/Watcher/50776.aspx/)