Keeping an eye out

Dave Bartlett
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City revitalizing neighbourhood watch programs

Jennifer McGrath (right) is the neighbourhood watch fieldworker with the City of St. John’s. The city took over the program about a year ago in hopes of revitalizing community policing. There are seven active watches around the capital and many more in various stages of development. — Telegram photo illustration/photos by Gary Hebbard/The Telegram

You may have noticed the amber signs with the shady looking character lurking in the corner.

But some of those neighbourhood watch signs around the city are old and in areas where watches are no longer active.

About a year ago, the City of St. John’s officially took over the co-ordination of the neighbourhood watch program in the hopes of revitalizing community-based crime prevention.

Jennifer McGrath was hired as the neighbourhood watch fieldworker.

She said the idea is to connect neighbours with neighbours, neighbourhoods with neighbourhoods and curb crime such as break-and-enters and vandalism.

As McGrath understands it, the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary started the neighbourhood watch program in the 1980s and it was completely run by volunteers — as it continues to be — with support from the police.

But she said no one kept tabs on the individual watches once they were set up and some were discontinued, as people moved away, for example.

Before being hired by the city, McGrath was involved in a pilot project on neighbourhood watch with the St. John’s citizens crime prevention committee.


She said the rebuilding of the program has had lots of support from the police, the city and neighbourhood communities, including the churches and schools that have opened their doors for meetings.

“We have seven active (watches) right now but I’d be really interested if there’s any others in the city that were going under the old system. I’d love them to get in touch with us so we can help support them as well, and offer any new information we might have,” said McGrath.

She also said there’s another six or seven watches in “active development” and lots of other groups are in the initial stages of forming neighbourhood watches around the city.

McGrath said crime is a complex issue and neighbourhood watches are just one approach to address the problem.

“We can be the eyes and ears of the neighbourhood,” she said. “We can help the police, we can help our neighbours and we can help prevent crime.”

McGrath was clear that all suspicious activity would be reported directly to police.

Vigilante behaviour, she said, isn’t acceptable and people shouldn’t be taking the law into their own hands.

“We have seven active (watches) right now but I’d be really interested if there’s any others in the city that were going under the old system. I’d love them to get in touch with us so we can help support them as well, and offer any new information we might have." Jennifer McGrath

The first step in setting up a watch is to contact McGrath.

“I will take care of the administrative work, I will book the meetings,” she said.

“We just need the people to come and learn about neighbourhood watch to remove the myths.”

McGrath said there’s no patrolling involved and it’s not about being nosey.

But she said it’s always better to be safe than sorry if people witness anything suspicious.

“You can never bother the police. That’s why they are here, to help protect us,” said McGrath.

She said while the city is a safe place to live overall, the program is a proactive approach to crime prevention and community development.

She also said a neighbourhood watch can lead to other community activities, such as litter cleanups.

“There’s so much that can happen when neighbourhoods get together,” said McGrath.

Coun. Sheilagh O’Leary is a strong supporter of the neighbourhood watch program.

“One of the big issues that I had on my platform was about neighbourhood well-being and safety issues,” she told The Telegram.

O’Leary has been involved with her neighbourhood’s association before becoming a member of council and she said the association is one of the groups working towards an active neighbourhood watch.

“Just like everywhere else in the city, we basically have a growing concern about crime,” she said. “With the prosperity that comes with the oil boom ... we all know in those times that crime also escalates.”

O’Leary said when she lived downtown, she always felt safer when she knew her neighbours were home and keeping a watch on suspicious activity on her street.

“I think ... it’s something that’s been inherent in communities in Newfoundland anyway, about how we kind of look out for each other,” she said.

McGrath tells people the golden rule of the watch is “be the neighbour you wish you had.”

She can be reached at 726-0180 or via email at

Geographic location: Newfoundland

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