Everyone is right to be concerned with the safety of their communities, whether they live in an area highly susceptible to crime or a sleepy Mayberry-esque hamlet. Condominiums, cooperatives, and homeowners’ associations are no exception; in fact, the communal nature of these environments may make it even more likely that residents would want to band together in effort to advocate for their mutual well-being.
Sometimes, this takes on the form of a neighborhood watch, with neighbors working together to establish a chain of command that will rapidly alert the proper authorities should something seem amiss. And this can often be well and good; mutual support systems are inherently a positive, and neighborhood watch programs can and do have a place in a multifamily residential context. But it’s important to be aware of the boundaries. As the death of Trayvon Martin in 2012 starkly demonstrated, when unqualified, untrained citizens take the law into their own hands, tragedy can all too easily be the result.
When considering establishing a neighborhood watch, it’s important for an association to acknowledge where its responsibilities lie and what its specific goals are — and then develop a structure from there. The primary purpose of a neighborhood watch should be to observe and report, rather than intervene and escalate.
“It’s okay to have a neighborhood watch; it’s certainly not illegal, and it’s usually not prohibited by condo or HOA documents,” says Frank Flynn, managing partner and owner of the Boston-based Flynn Law Group. “Having people walk around and patrol is certainly fine. However, it must be stated that a neighborhood watch is NOT the police, and we’ve had some situations wherein neighborhood watches have become overzealous.”
“[Neighborhood watch] is an area that needs to be handled delicately, and must be approached very cautiously,” warns David Muller, a community association attorney with the international law firm Becker & Poliakoff. “There’s a common misconception that community associations affirmatively ensure the safety of their residents and owners, but the reality is that associations are tasked with doing that which is required of them under the governing documents and the statutes. Unless those documents specifically state that the association is tasked with protecting the residents from crime, then that’s not one of its affirmative obligations. Now, a lot of times people misconstrue that statement as allowing the board to turn a blind eye, but of course, that’s not the case, either. If you’re aware of violations that are happening and ignore them, there could be liability for the association.”