MADISON, Wis. - Madison police have launched a program called the "Good Neighbor Project" with the aim of redefining what neighborhood watch means to the city's residents.
Officer Emily Samson, the department's new crime prevention coordinator, said the program is about connecting neighbors to neighbors and neighbors to officers, expanding on what the department and the city's neighborhood watch groups already do.
Sampson said some in the community have misconceptions about what neighborhood watch actually means here in Madison. She said neighborhood watches here in Madison don't go out on patrol, for example.
"If you look at what neighborhood watches across the country are doing, a lot of (them) patrol the streets, they wear reflective vests, they get out with flashlights and they snoop around their neighborhoods," Samson said. "A current assistant chief on our department told one our neighborhood watch groups 'If we see you doing that, we're going to come looking for you.'"
Those misconceptions, she said, are often barriers to starting programs in Madison neighborhoods.
For example, Samson said when she talked to neighbors in one community, the death of black teen Trayvon Martin at the hands of Florida neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman made people anxious about starting their own neighborhood watch.
"We did talk about George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin and I have that concern as well," Samson said. "That's not what the city of Madison is about."
"Really what (neighborhood watch) is doing (in Madison) is educating, talking about real prevention, empowering neighbors to keep their eyes open and get to know one another," Samson said.
Samson said she hopes to use the Good Neighbor Project to help neighborhoods plan events, block parties and other activities that strengthen bonds between neighbors and police and get new neighborhood watch groups started, preventing crime along the way.
She said one neighborhood watch already putting these principles into action is the Midvale Heights neighborhood watch on Madison's west side.
"The watch part is more about watching out for each other," Wendy Reichel, a member of the 600-plus strong group, said. "If there's an elderly person across the street that doesn't collect their mail for a day or two and you know that they're living alone, you might want to check on them."
Reichel said the group puts on regular events featuring law enforcement and other community leaders. She said she hopes the project helps other communities in the city share ideas.
"It's going to give people in our neighborhood an opportunity to interact with other neighborhoods, see what's working for them, what's not working for them, brainstorm new ideas for events that we could all have together or just learn from events that people have had that have been really successful," Reichel said.
Samson said the department has already put on one "Good Neighbor Night" event and hopes to have more of them in the coming weeks.
For more information about the Good Neighbor Project, visit MPD's website.