You watch, I'll wait for the burglary

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The Independent Online
THE FIRST time we were invited to join a Neighbourhood Watch scheme, we were just too sceptical and too busy. In any case, we had never been robbed. The second invitation had a more direct and urgent appeal: a burglar was working his way steadily down our road and would soon be too close for comfort. With little chance of help from St George, Joan of Arc or the US Cavalry, we settled for Neighbourhood Watch.

We went to the first meeting full of curiosity and expectation. What does a Neighbourhood Watch do? The answer was immediately apparent: exactly what its individual members had always done - keep a discreet eye on the road and its occupants, without being nosy. Try again: what could any of

us do?

A young policewoman (were the men all out on real jobs?) explained about the different kinds of door lock we could have fitted. Our latest victim looked embarrassed: his door had been kicked in, having been much weakened by the fitting of a substantial mortice lock. Not wishing to make our lecturer look more defensive than she already appeared, I kept quiet about the two friends whose properties were entered with keys that had been illegally, but easily, obtained.

Doors not having proved to be an obvious success, the policewoman started on window locks. Oh, dear. We have friends in London who were obliged by their insurance company to fit expensive window locks after the first burglary, only to have the entire window frame removed in the second. Under pressure, our lecturer admitted that the most you can hope to do is slow down the process of illegal entry until the police have time to arrive. Still hopeful? Oddly enough, you should not, on any account, send for the Neighbourhood Watch. Challenging intruders is a very risky thing to do.

Well, let's move on to security lights. Our lecturer's spirits rose as she made us laugh about leaving the hall lights on when we go out. Even burglars, thick as they are (a fact I was rapidly beginning to doubt), know that nobody spends all evening sitting on the stairs. Best to leave all the lights on, thus giving the Treasury its VAT. Leave plenty of exterior lights on, too, she suggested, so that you may, if you happen to be passing, spot any intruders.

What the lecturer neglected to say, and what my neighbours unhappily discovered, is that those very same lights will help burglars to do their entering more comfortably: the last lot cheekily left their bicycle lamp behind, since they could see perfectly well enough to break in through the patio doors . . .

By this time, the mood of the meeting was distinctly disaffected. We had come to this gathering hoping to be told how to protect our homes and those of our neighbours; we had asked for bread and been given stones. If each of us had been offered a horse, a loaded gun and a sheriff's star, we would have felt considerably more secure. Riding off into the sunset beats sticking a Neighbourhood Watch disc on your door any day.

Back to basics, however. The final part of the lecture was about burglar alarms. These aroused considerable interest, not least because our young policewoman had her own home alarmed. None of us knew of anyone who had been burgled while in possession of a working alarm system. This was the sort of information we had really come for. What system did she have? Who installed it? What did it cost? Was it police-approved? This was her final embarrassment: she was not allowed to say. The police may not recommend particular firms or systems.

We have a Neighbourhood Watch sticker on our door, but for the life of me I cannot justify its presence. I don't know what it is there for. My life has not changed, and despite all our affection and goodwill towards them, our neighbours have been burgled twice.

I suppose that Neighbourhood Watch schemes, like Citizen's Charters, are designed to be briefly therapeutic, to lull the citizenry into thinking it is empowered. Institutions, bullies and criminals always have the edge, but we are encouraged to dream that we, the common people, can fight back. I think that I would just as soon wait for the US cavalry to arrive.

(Photograph omitted)