Plans to bring back neighborhood watch groups evokes outrage

'Pomocna straz VB', 1982, photo: CTK

Neighborhood watch is said to be one of the most successful crime prevention initiatives ever. But a plan by the Czech Interior Ministry to establish neighborhood watches in this country has evoked public outrage.

'Pomocna straz VB',  1982,  photo: CTK
The reason is simple: for most Czechs neighborhood watch groups are reminiscent of the so called "pomocna straz VB" - a network of civilians who assisted the former secret communist police by spying on their neighbors and reporting any suspicious events. In those days they wore yellow armbands and were regarded with suspicion and scorn by the neighborhood as they went about their business.

When it emerged that the Interior Ministry's reform plans included the setting up of neighborhood watch groups such as are active in Great Britain, the negative public reaction clearly indicated that the country is simply not ready for such a step. The idea was slammed not just by individuals who fear being harassed or spied on by neighbors with "special powers" but also by some politicians. Former Social Democrat interior minister Frantisek Bublan said that while he too had been aware of the existence of these voluntary watch groups in the West he had not for a moment considered introducing them here.

Frantisek Bublan
"Creating a network of police helpers is really not something we want to do. That smacks of a police state and given the country's past experience it is simply not acceptable" Mr. Bublan told reporters. Polls conducted in the streets of Prague indicate that this view is widespread. In the face of heated opposition the interior minister back-tracked, saying that neighborhood watch groups were music of the distant future, something to be considered when the memories of the old days had faded. He tried to explain that such groups would be extremely useful in curbing thefts and robberies and in helping the police during times of crisis such as the 2002 floods. All of these arguments make sense - but at this point feelings are simply stronger than facts.