Town-Watch Time-Out: Safety Comes First!

Matt Peskin is executive director of the National Association of Town Watch, a nonprofit group dedicated to the development and promotion of crime- and drug-prevention programs, as well as creator of "National Night Out," an annual event – this year, Aug. 2 – to strengthen neighbors' relationships with each other and with law enforcement. The 51-year-old Wynnewood resident founded the national association in 1981, after volunteering with the Lower Merion Community Watch. Three years later, this member of Adath Israel in Merion Station created and organized the first "Night Out."

What is the philosophy behind having the community involved in crime prevention?
"When it comes down to it, it's really people in the neighborhood who prevent crimes. The police department responds to calls, but neighborhoods prevent them. When programs are active – even just six, seven or eight people on a porch, or just some nosy neighbors – criminals are pushed to other areas. It's difficult to measure prevention, but [various people] will tell you it works."


What are citizens' responsibilities when they volunteer for town watch?
"There are actually two types. There are the groups who rotate nights, and go out on patrols with cell phones or two-way radios. The other type is the group that has meetings – or awareness programs. They don't go on patrol, but they are alert and aware of incidences. In the Philadelphia area, there is more of a mobile patrol."


How did the idea for the association morph into "National Night Out"?
"Between 1981 and 1983, one of the things that was missing was that communities didn't know there was a watch program going on. It was working and crime rates were down, but we needed some type of event that would highlight citizen involvement and prevention.

"The event would symbolize how powerful the neighborhood is in preventing crime. In 1984, we held the first event in 400 communities with the participation of 2.5 million people.

"We pushed cookouts, parades or carnivals – anything to eat and talk, hang out and mingle with people on your own street.

"The thing exploded, and became such a fun event. People enjoyed being a large force against crime."


Skeptics may say that this works for small towns in middle America, but can it really be effective in urban centers, like Philadelphia?
"Take Minneapolis, for example. It's an inner city with people of all different backgrounds.

"But last year, they had 825 block parties, and ran out of barricades to block off the streets. This is one of their top three events of the year. There are events scheduled for everywhere from Detroit and Houston to … a small town in Kansas. The common bond is the safety factor."


What are your future aspirations for "National Night Out"? What are the possibilities for the program?
"The hardest thing about town watch, in general, is that it isn't the most exciting thing in the world. It's hard to keep people involved. A town watch usually forms because of a problem or a series of problems in a community, but the programs are so effective that when the problem doesn't exist anymore, everyone loses interest.

"But the event aims to keep people involved in the long-term and reach those we haven't yet reached. I'd like it to be the first legal holiday in August. You're off because it's 'National Night Out.' It would be a day spent for safety and community-building, but we have a long way to go before that."



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