Long gone are the days of town watch groups patrolling neighborhood streets in pseudo-security uniforms. President of Mayfair Town Watch Anna Stacey says, nowadays, town watch is all about patrolling the community online.
Her organization’s digital tool of choice is Facebook.
"It’s a whole new world out there on Facebook,” Stacey said. “That’s really the only tool that we use. We all have full time jobs, so for us to go out physically, door-to-door, or try to attract people or recruit people physically, would be very difficult. So we use Facebook regularly; we do updates every single day to keep in touch with people and to let people keep in touch with us."
The Mayfair Town Watch group page on Facebook has 790 members. Since the group was established in 2011, Stacey says the group has functioned almost completely online.
“I know a lot of town watches focus on the physical patrol of the neighborhood, but we have always been online. We more concentrate on being the liaison between the community and the council people, and the schools, and different people within those entities. So, essentially most, if not all of our work is being done online. I mean we do physical patrols in the neighborhood, but this has become more of our thing recently,” she said
The group’s online presence came in handy when a recent brawl between several high schoolers broke out in the Northeast Philadelphia neighborhood. The fight was caught on camera and posted on YouTube. A member of the town watch later posted the video in the Facebook group and that’s when Stacey says her team sprang into action.
"We addressed it right away. Somebody posted it to Facebook and we were able to send to the principal who was able to immediately identify everybody in the video. Whoever was responsible for this fight was suspended," she said.
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According to Stacey, school violence is one of the top three issues the community faces. She added that metal scrapping and vandalism/graffiti are also problems the group seeks to address.
Mayfair Town Watch is not alone in its adoption of digital tools.
Brian Shumsky, 27, assumed an informal role as the Fox Chase Town Watch’s media manager/photographer nearly five years ago. He says he helped his group to create a Facebook page and now they do most of their work online as well.
"I joined about 4-5 years ago. When I joined, they didn’t have a Facebook and the website hadn’t been updated since ’08. I really wanted to help them advocate and let people know what’s going on in the neighborhood. And with Facebook, they can come and post and say my house has been broken in to or keep your lights on or whatever. It’s helpful,” Shumsky said.
Stacey says one drawback to using Facebook is that it’s difficult to gauge some members’ level of engagement. But she says she hopes to strike a chord with members by presenting a balance of good and bad news in the forum. She says town watches do not have to be all gloom and doom.
"When you’re on Facebook, you really don’t know who your audience is, so you’re usually spinning your wheels trying to figure out who’s really out there listening, who’s really using the news we’re giving them and usually, people view town watch as something negative, or crime related," she said.
"So, we really try to engage as many positive things as possible to show people that, yes, there’s issues in the neighborhood, but there’s also tons of positive things that are going on."