Chalk it up to the Lobo effect.
The fuzzy gray wolf debuted as the mascot of American Canyon’s Neighborhood Watch in May 2018. City officials have since credited him with boosting the program’s enrollment from 217 to 650 participants across all 16 neighborhoods, or roughly one in 30 of all American Canyon residents.
“He’s kind of a celebrity,” said American Canyon Police Chief Oscar Ortiz.
Though most people mistakenly associate neighborhood watch programs with vigilantism, he said, they’re a way to stay informed and build community in an age where people don’t go out of their way to talk to their neighbors.
American Canyon, the youngest city in Napa County, is sometimes seen by outsiders as a bedroom community without a downtown to anchor the city and foster a sense of community. That’s what American Canyon Police Officer Jeff Scott, who coordinates Neighborhood Watch and came to work in the city after working for the Sheriff’s Office in unincorporated Napa County, had thought too.
“I was wrong,” Scott said. “This place has tremendous community.”
As evidence, city officials point to last week’s National Night Out, an event to bring neighbors and law enforcement closer. Law enforcement agencies in larger cities, such as Napa, may have the public come to a centralized meetup location, but American Canyon city and law enforcement staff spent their National Night Out wandering in and out of 12 block parties organized by Neighborhood Watch participants.
There was lumpia and a pig barbecued whole.
“They were having a blast,” Ortiz said. “If that’s not community, I don’t know what is.”
Neighborhood Watch isn’t just a place where neighbors learn to keep each other safe, said city spokesperson Jen Kansanback, who works with the program.
It’s a place where “good relationships get built.”
Neighborhood Watch History
The city doubled down on its efforts to grow the Neighborhood Watch program in 2016, but some version of the program has been in effect for the past 15 years, since Officer Scott came onboard. His position is largely funded by a U.S. Department of Justice Community Oriented Policing Services grant, Ortiz said.
Ortiz said it’s hard to determine how much crime Neighborhood Watch may have stopped, but a 2008 Justice Department study found crime decreased 16 percent in Neighborhood Watch areas compared to control areas.
Scott urges neighbors to call the non-emergency line at 707-253-4451 if they notice anything suspicious or out of the ordinary. Callers may remain anonymous.
“We don’t want the community to think they’re bothering us,” he said.
Ortiz said some people who witness suspicious activities are hesitant to contact police because they assume officers will respond to a call SWAT team-style. It will be a friendly contact, unless officers suspect the person is doing something wrong.
Just as officers in movies have patrol partners, Ortiz said American Canyon Police officers’ partners are “the eyes and ears of the community.”
Neighborhood Watch isn’t necessarily a big-time commitment, Ortiz said. Most participants get the occasional email or newsletter with tips, but more involved participants may host meetings or take on other duties.
American Canyon is working to expand Neighborhood Watch to business communities.
Aside from the growing participation numbers, city spokesperson Kansanback pointed to social media conversations on NextDoor, a social media site that allows neighbors to connect, as evidence that Neighborhood Watch is working. She said she’s seen commenters repeat Neighborhood Watch mantras and coach one another.
Julie Foster, who has co-captained Neighborhood Watch for the Cookie Hill-Oceanview Estates neighborhood with her husband for four years, said she hopes to reach people who aren’t comfortable with the program, let them know they have a support system in Neighborhood Watch and get them to participate in more events.
“It’s all about everybody looking out for one another,” she said.
Neighborhood Watch has spread beyond the bounds of public safety in Foster’s neighborhood, Foster said. It’s led to recruiting volunteers for clean-up days at the home of some elderly friends and reaching out to students who can work in community programs for school credit.
Having Neighborhood Watch “led to ‘What else can we do to make our city the best city there is to live in?’” she said.