• NHW in Estonia- history and the present day

The author:
Tiina Ristmäe
NGO Estonian Neighbourhood Watch
Member of the board

Useful Concepts.
Neighbourhood watch (NHW) - A neighbourhood watch (also called a crime watch or neighbourhood crime watch) is a citizens' organization devoted to crime and vandalism prevention within a neighbourhood. It is not a vigilante organization, since members are expected not to directly intervene in possible criminal activity. Instead, neighbourhood watch members are to stay alert to unusual activity and contact the authorities

Neighbourhood watch sector – an area (an apartment house(s) or private houses) where people are organising neighbourhood watch

Neighbourhood watch leader – a person who is elected from neighbourhood watch sector members and who represents the neighbourhood watch sector in relation with other co-operation partners.

The Association – Estonian Neighbourhood Watch Association. This is a non governmental organisation (NGO) which is organising and developing neighbourhood watch movement in Estonia.


Neighbourhood watch is well-known community action where people’s communication and co-operation helps to create safe living environment. The implementation of neighbourhood watch varies in different countries but the common keyword is the role of community members. It is a thinking where everybody has a duty and possibility to act towards safer home.

In this article the author gives an overview of neighbourhood watch movement in Estonia. First paragraph describes the history of neighbourhood watch, in second paragraph there is a description how neighbourhood watch works in Estonia. In third part there is information about the results of neighbourhood watch in Estonia and the last paragraph describes the difficulties what have influenced implementing the actions.

1. History of neighbourhood watch.

Neighbourhood Watch, as it is known today, began in the United States of America in the 1970’s in order to combat the escalating incidence of crime. In 1981 similar schemes were commenced in the United Kingdom. The neighbourhood watch concept is wide spread within the western world, particularly the U.S.A., Canada, U.K., New Zealand, Singapore and Australia.

The neighbourhood watch scheme in the United Kingdom is a partnership where people come together to make their communities safer. It involves the police, community safety departments of local authorities, other voluntary organisations and, above all, individuals and families who want to make their neighbourhoods better places to live. It aims to help people protect themselves and their properties and to reduce the fear of crime by means of improved home security, greater vigilance, accurate reporting of suspicious incidents to the police and by fostering a community spirit. The UK's first neighbourhood watch was set up in 1982  and 10 million people are now claimed to be members of different neighbourhood watch schemes.

1.1 Estonian neighbourhood watch movement

The Estonian Neighbourhood Watch had its roots in people’s fear of crime and their desire to protect themselves. The Estonian NHW model was developed following the UK’s example. During the time and influenced by local conditions the model has changed and achieved the necessary essence which works well in Estonia.

ENHW is an association founded on May 5th, 2000 as a civic initiative, goal of which is increasing of sense of security of dwellers at homes and close vicinity to homes by dweller’s own active practice in the field of neighbourhood watch. It was the citizens reaction towards dramatic cut of the number of the police officers in 2000. The first and main aim of this organisation is to raise interest within dwellers of private houses as well as apartment buildings towards neighbourhood watch and to inform them of the goal, principles and possibilities of neighbourhood watch.

To reach this aim, the Association facilitates forming of nongovernmental associations and movements dealing with neighbourhood watch and supporting their activities, introduces principles of neighbourhood watch, publishes print-outs and carries out trainings and develops co-operation with state and municipal governments, police and other institutions.

The task of Association is to be an organization that unites nongovernmental associations and persons dealing with neighbourhood watch, to share with its members information and training regarding neighbourhood watch. The Association is a representative of its members in finding partners and in development of co-operation with them.

2. How does the neighbourhood watch work?

The first condition of starting with neighbourhood watch in one district is that people should realize that they need and they want to participate in this movement. If the initiative comes from police or the Association, then probably they start with NHW but the activity might be not so effective. So if there is initiative inside one area then it is important that they will receive adequate information about NHW. Usually the people organise a meeting and the representer of the Association (with police if possible) comes to introduce the possibilities of NHW. Then people can decide – is this what they need and do they want to participate in NHW.

If they want to start with NHW, the first step will be gathering the data of participants of NHW – name, address, e-mail, telephone number(s), car number and colour. Each participant confirms with his/her signature that they agree with using this data in the NHW activities. So after the meeting there is enough time for everybody to sign in to the NHW sector if they have the interest. Of course, later it is also possible to sign in or sign out. Later this data will be updated at least once a year but usually after every new member joins or when somebody leaves the NHW sector.

The members of NHW sector choose a leader who will represent them in the co-operation agreement, in NHW meetings and will be a contact person for other institutions. One obligation of NHW sector leader is also to update the data of NHW members.

2.1. Neighbourhood watch co-operation agreement

After the data of the NHW members is gathered, the next step will be signing the contract. It is co-operation contract between four (in Tallinn five) parties - NHW sector, the police, the local government and the Association (in Tallinn also the Municipality police). The contract is a joint agreement that we all make an effort to create more safety in this area and we work in close co-operation. The contract is signed by the highest positions of the parties – NHW sector leader (elected by the members of the NHW sector), the mayor, the head of the police in current district and the managing director of the Association. The process of contract signing has very important meaning to people who start with NHW. They will see that their activity is noticed and recognised at the highest level of authorities and of course it is a good opportunity to discuss the possible solutions to the problems which the NHW sector might have.

2.2. What happens after the agreement?

After the contract signing the members of NHW sector will receive a folder, where we put different kind of advice-leaflets and information booklets about safety, of course there is a paper with contact data of their neighbours (the paper with important numbers) and some information about our co-operation partners in the field of safety business. 

The neighbourhood watch sector receives placards from the Association, those are signs for strangers that people living in this area are observant and who react if they see something suspicious.

2.3. The actions of neighbourhood watch members

The main principle of NHW is that if you see something suspicious, you do react. How do one knows how to react? How do one knows when one should do something – call to neighbour, police or to local government. Usually new members of NHW have those questions. To answer those questions and give basic information about safety, the Association organises a training. This meeting, where all the members of this NHW sector are invited, is usually held shortly after the agreement signing. The Association, the police and local government are sending their representatives to the meeting to share information and answer the questions. If the neighbours weren’t familiar with each other earlier, this meeting gives a good opportunity to get to know each other.

2.4. The paper with important numbers.

As mentioned in paragraph two the members of NHW sector give the contact data to the NHW sector leader. The Association makes a paper with the data of neighbours, police, local government contacts and the Association contacts. For certain all the emergency numbers are included as well. So this paper helps the neighbours to react if there is some kind of problem. For example if one neighbour sees a stranger in his neighbours garden, he can make a call to neighbour and share the information. If it appears that there should be nobody in the garden, they will call the police and possible theft will be prevented. Or another example from the apartment building where suddenly one women notices that there is water dripping from the ceiling. She goes to the upstairs neighbours apartment but there is nobody at home. Luckily she has the neighbours contacts in her NHW materials, so she can make a call and prevent big damages. Those examples are from everyday life and could happen with anybody. Usually we tend not to notice those things (first example) or we can do nothing and just wait for neighbour (second example). In neighbourhood watch it is important that you NOTICE and then you REACT. How to learn to notice – we think that it comes with time and experiences but also with following the example of other people. How to react - this basic information will be shared in the first training of NHW sector and whenever the need for new knowledge appears.

Being a neighbourhood watch member should be integrated in person’s everyday life. Actually there are not many extra duties or obligations for NHW member. The NHW sector leader is a contact person for other co-operation agreement parties and if there are some meetings or roundtables, this person is invited to represent the NHW sector. Once a year the Association organises a general meeting where all the NHW sector leaders are invited. This is a meeting to develop the Association and to discuss the future activities.

2.5. Neighbourhood watch patrols.

Usually it is the primary question in NHW first meeting “do we have to start patrolling?” In Estonia the patrolling has a very small part in NHW movement. It is not very common to see the NHW patrols in neighbourhood watch sector. Though, there are some sectors where the patrol is organised. The Association supplies them with patrolling vests, the local police gives a short basic training  - what to notice and how to react. The idea is that NHW patrols are the eyes and ears of police, if they notice something where intervention is necessary, they will call police, they shouldn’t intervene.  The police is aware about those NHW sectors where people go patrolling. Patrolling is voluntary and the Association supports the initiative of NHW members.                                                     

3. The results of neighbourhood watch movement in Estonia.

Neighbourhood watch has been practiced in Estonia already more than 15 years. The members usually feel and notice the results of their activity but what is the overall impact? Is NHW an effective model in reducing fear of crime and preventing crimes? To get answers to those questions the Association ordered several surveys from the University of Tartu.

The first block of questions gave an overview how the respondents evaluate the NHW in the field of crime prevention. 85% of respondents said that their home has become safer after starting with NHW. 72% believe that the possible help is now closer than before becoming a member of NHW. 18% of respondents know that in their sector there has been prevented a crime, 10% know a case where the action of NHW has helped to catch a criminal. The author sees this as a very good result considering how rarely we actually witness a crime. Also this is a data which is not available anywhere else, police is recording only the committed crimes, not the prevented ones.

The second block of the interview was about the relations between neighbours. 13% of respondents said the relations have become better after starting with NHW. The rest reported the relations remained the same.

The third block described the actions of the NHW sector. 48% of respondents have helped to improve the safety inside the NHW sector (new locks, safety doors, gates, patrolling etc).

We also asked about the motivation to participate in NHW activities. The main motivation is the need but also already achieved results. So if it is peaceful and there are no problems, people don’t think about NHW, it is integrated in their everyday life. Author thinks that it is also a good result because NHW shouldn’t be  guarding and watching but acting when the intervention is needed. 

The survey gave information also about the relations between NHW sector with police and local government. 20% of respondents think that the co-operation with police has improved. But most of the respondents consider the co-operation with police to be at the same level as before the NHW participation. Co-operation can not be one sided and there is enough room for development for police forces and also NHW members.

Co-operation with local government is occasional and many respondents actually do not know anything about it. This is also a field where improvements are necessary.

The last block of the survey was about the training need. Almost every respondent indicated need for some kind of training – 83% of respondents need a training how to act in emergency situation, 75% need training about law enforcement legislation, 71% need information how to make their home safer (technical possibilities) and 41% need more information how to improve NHW activities in their district. So this is the actual working field for the Association because one of our aims is to offer different trainings to our members. But there is one problem that makes it difficult to satisfy the training-need. In the research there was also a question about the time resources to take part in those trainings and it came out that only half of the respondents have enough time to actually take part in the trainings. So we can not draw conclusions here that organising a training will improve the quality of NHW activity, because many people just do not have time to participate in the training. But this is a subject where the Association has to find some solution with NHW members.

To sum up the survey the results show that NHW helps to prevent crime and reduce the fear of crime. The members of NHW know that the necessary help is closer and if there is a need they can co-operate with their neighbours. The Association co-ordinates the work of NHW sector, the main duties are counselling, organising trainings and composing informational materials. The unique co-operation model- local people, local government, the police and organisation who co-ordinates the structure – has received the support of all parties and is effective in preventing crime and reducing fear of crime.

4. Difficulties in implementing the neighbourhood watch.

The text above can lead to an impression that NHW is the magical key and solution for every problem. But still crime exists, people become victims and that happens also in NHW sectors. To talk about the difficulties in implementing NHW in Estonia we should start with Estonians values, attitudes, history, traditions and nature. We are coming from a society where everything was organised and people should not or actually were not allowed to intervene into the functioning of society. There are already decades of different society organisation in Estonia, but still there are many, who think that somebody else is responsible of the persons life, actions and safety included. They say that we have police, safety companies – they work towards safety, why there is a need of neighbourhood watch? So this is the idea of many people in Estonia and no one else but themselves can break this belief.

One problem what we have noticed is passiveness and ignorance. It concerns the values – what is important and how one tries to live one’s life. We can notice it in everyday life – in traffic, in relations, at work. It is hard to break this attitude and it can also break the positive enthusiasm of others. But here it is possible to draw a parallel with school atmosphere – if in the classroom the majority has positive attitude towards learning, the important values are friendship, helpful and empathic relations, the whole class has positive atmosphere. In society generally it is the same, so the  solutions in this case would be more positive examples to follow.


During the years of activity the organisation has found a place in Estonian society and now people turn to organisation to find some information about NHW. It shows that NHW is necessary and helps to fill a place in society where neighbours can get to know each other and work in co-operation.

They say that Estonians are big individualists, who tend to be rather alone than working in group. Our experience shows that at first it is hard to start but with good leadership and common goals there is really nice and effective co-operation.

The key of success of NHW is cooperation and exchange of information between house/apartments owners, local government and police. Living in an apartment building or private house where you know your neighbours and have contact with them, you can be sure that in case of trouble they can help you.

If neighbours know each other, social control increases among the dwellers – it is more embarrassing to misbehave if all the people are acquainted. Kids and young people would probably also behave when they realise that everyone knows their parents.

Communicating with the neighbours certainly gives many good thoughts and ideas about how to make the staircases, playgrounds, parking lots or cellars a safer place. If the whole neighbourhood supports someone’s idea, it gets a wider basis and it is easier to put it into practice.

NGO Estonian Neighbourhood Watch has changed a lot since the beginning. Now we turn more attention to the quality of NHW sectors, the number of sectors is not primary, important is how they work. Also the organisation has become the only representer of people according to safety and crime prevention, we are unique in Estonia but also in the whole world. So we are an influential partner for national and local government, police as well as to security, insurance and lock companies.

Used Materials:

  1. Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia in the Internet
  2. The survey among neighbourhood watch participants, 2008. www.naabrivalve.ee Available only in Estonian

Contacts of the organisation:

NGO Estonian Neghbourhood Watch

Tatari 12
Tallinn 10116
Telephone: +372 6522522
Mobile phone: +372 51 36630
Fax: +372 6522522
Web-page: www.naabrivalve.ee
E-mail: info@naabrivalve.ee