When the surveillance state comes to your neighborhood

Public-safety apps and Facebook groups such as Westgate Watch are making residents more aware of crimes in their communities. But is that always a good thing?

Andy Downing
Columbus Alive
Cameras and other home security devices have become popular among neighborhood watch groups.

J.R. McMillan cited a number of factors in his family’s decision to move to Westgate four years ago, including the Hilltop-area neighborhood’s proximity to Downtown, as well as the sense of community he said he felt from his first visit years prior. 

“We knew our neighbors probably better in the first 30 days of living there than we did … after more than 10 years [in our previous neighborhood],” said McMillan, who relocated to Westgate from a home on the municipal limits of New Albany, as reported by the Dispatch. “It’s a much more close-knit community, and it’s also a community that solves a lot of its own problems. They didn’t have a lot of grocery options nearby, so they created their own farmer’s market. They were worried about sagging real estate prices and sales, so they created their own home and garden tour. They didn’t have a lot of local watering holes, so they created their own home-brew community. There was a lot of interest in preserving the park, which is in the heart of the neighborhood, so they started Friends of Westgate Park, which actually works with the city to replenish trees that have been lost over the years.”

So when McMillan had a lawnmower stolen from his garage and his parked car damaged in a hit-and-run, he and about 50 other neighbors created Westgate Watch, a private neighborhood Facebook group centered on crime and public safety, which launched in August 2018 and currently has 678 members. “There was a block watch group (Westgate Blockwatch) that was already established, but it didn’t really seem to be that active, unless you wanted a flyer about senior scams every three months,” McMillan said. “And I think for a neighborhood as connected as [Westgate] is, it was a real disconnect. … Westgate, much like Bexley, much like Clintonville, is an island surrounded by high crime, and I felt like our island was getting smaller.”

Part of the Hilltop, Westgate is bordered by Sullivant Avenue to the south, Demorest Road to the west, West Broad Street to the North and Hague Avenue to the East. And some residents, including McMillan, say the problems affecting these surrounding areas often spill over into the neighborhood, and in particular Westgate Park. 

“The activity we see every day in plain sight, for those who are paying attention … is something that if it were happening at any one of our individual addresses, we would be getting a knock on the door, and we would have the city attorney’s office trying to board up our homes,” said McMillan, an occasional freelance contributor to Alive in the past. “These are people [in Westgate Watch] who care about their neighborhood, who see things going on that concern them, and who are sharing information.”

But not all Westgate neighbors are enamored with the steps the group has taken in its efforts to curb crime, particularly in terms of its surveillance-heavy approach. In describing Westgate Watch’s widespread surveillance network, which includes more than 200 members with camera systems, Kelly McKinney told the Dispatch that the group could closely track anyone who entered. “Nobody can leave our neighborhood or come into our neighborhood without us knowing exactly how they came into our neighborhood and how they left,” he said.

“I won’t lie to you, that scared me as a resident,” said David Jennings, who has lived on the city’s West Side for 14 years, the last six in Westgate. “Now, if the city feels there’s a problem somewhere, and they want to put a police camera in a location to keep an eye on things, that’s one thing. But it’s so odd that it’s these random neighbors. Do they get together every week and watch the footage? If Susie is walking down the street, are they watching her every few houses to make sure she’s staying on the correct walking path? Who are you watching and why? It’s weird to me. It’s creepy.”

Along with user-submitted posts, the group also leverages available surveillance technology, including crime-centric public safety apps like the 911-connected PulsePoint, Amazon’s Ring-adjacent Neighbors and Citizen, which initially launched as Vigilante. Additionally, Westgate Watch created the aforementioned home security camera network to which members can opt-in. (If a member joins the camera collective, they might be asked to provide relevant footage should a crime occur nearby.)

Since its inception, Westgate Watch has continued to ramp up action, creating its own streamlined 311 reporting process designed to make it easier to register anonymous non-emergency complaints with the city. “When you get 1,000 complaints in two weeks you definitely have the city’s attention,” said McMillan, who added that the design wasn’t meant to overwhelm the system even if it has had that effect, at times. Regardless, McMillan said he hopes these actions spur a more robust city response. 

“The problems we see are shared by established neighborhoods and emerging neighborhoods. But if any of this was happening in Clintonville, it wouldn’t be long tolerated, by neighbors or the city,” McMillan wrote in one of several follow-up emails. “We’re not asking for special attention. We’re asking for comparable attention.”

“I work in advocacy, and any campaign does this, where you want to flood your elected officials with emails or letters about issues that matter to you, and I think Westgate Watch has a similar approach, which I think is counterproductive,” said Philip Kim, who moved to Westgate three years ago, drawn in by the neighborhood’s diversity, affordability and close proximity to the park, among other factors. “An example would be, ‘Oh, there’s someone in the park who’s parking on the grass,’ and if Westgate Watch gets ahold of this and deems it necessary to bring it up to the city, they will start bombarding 311 with calls, and I don’t think that’s very productive, or a good use of 311.”

J.R. McMillan, middle, talks to Peggy Fahy, front, during an informal in-person meeting of the Westgate Watch Facebook group, which in total includes more than 650 people, at Westgate Park on Tuesday, May 18, 2021. In addition to being neighborly lookouts, the neighborhood watch group reports criminal activity among its members who share security video and evidence of crimes amongst themselves and to police.

Westgate Watch has also progressed into what McMillan described as investigations, including extensive surveillance into what the group believed to be a car theft ring, as well as a nuisance house at 641 Racine Ave. that McMillan said Westgate Watch reported to the city in August 2020, and where a fatal shooting occurred four months later.

“It’s not as if we’re seeing things that aren’t going on. Our Spidey senses, so to speak, have gotten pretty reliable,” McMillan said. “I can give you a list of addresses where I’m 100 percent positive that in the next six months there’s going to be a murder. And we’ll see if the city decides to do anything about it.”

At least some city officials have expressed enthusiasm for the approach. “Having an engaged group like the Westgate Watch, that’s important for us to have those relationships to get intel,” City Attorney Zach Klein told the Dispatch in May.

Gary Daniels, chief lobbyist for the ACLU of Ohio, cautioned that surveillance networks established by individuals can quickly become an extension of the state. “One concern is … that what private citizens are now doing will at some point be done by the government, or there will be some relationship established between citizens and the police, where it becomes a quasi-citizen, quasi-government kind of operation,” Daniels said. (According to McMillan, Westgate Watch has provided camera footage to police on request to assist in criminal investigations in the past.)

Daniels also said that, historically, the presence of surveillance cameras has little impact on crime prevention. “The issue of government surveillance cameras has been around for a while … so what that’s given us is an opportunity over the years and decades to look and ask, ‘Does this type of surveillance prevent crime?’” Daniels said. “And it seems, across the board, there’s no evidence it does. … We’re all concerned with the types of problems [these groups] are trying to address in their communities and in their neighborhoods, but is what you’re doing actually doing anything? And is it causing harm in other ways?”

The idea that crime apps and similarly positioned Facebook groups, which are by no means exclusive to Westgate, can negatively impact a person’s perception of their surroundings is nothing new. During the pandemic, use of Nextdoor, a hyperlocal social media platform focused on public safety, spiked dramatically, exposing millions of new users to a steady bombardment of phone alerts about gunshots, vandalism and stolen cars, events which are presented absent context and can create a sense that crime rates are higher than they are in reality. 

“There has been this odd juxtaposition over the years, and let’s say over the decades at this point, of people feeling less and less safe, with an assumption that crime is going up across the board, but the data doesn’t back that up. I’m talking about government data, FBI data, Department of Justice data,” said Daniels, adding a qualifier for this past year, which has seen a steep rise in violent crime as the country emerges from COVID-19 lockdowns. “We continue as a society to get safer, but that’s not the public perception.”

“My concern with any of these apps, whether it's Neighbors, Citizen, or now the digitization of the neighborhood watch [in Facebook groups], is that they breed fear,” said David Ewoldsen, a professor in the Department of Media & Information at Michigan State University who previously spent more than seven years teaching in the School of Communications at Ohio State. “And with that [Westgate] neighborhood in particular, and the racism Hilltop already faces, I worry that the group can become an avenue for increasing that fear of outsiders. … In this country, most people equate crime with people of color, and so when you’re increasing fear, you’re increasing racism. If there was a place you could [imagine] the next Trayvon Martin happening, this would be one of the places I certainly think would be at a higher risk than most other neighborhoods.”

Ewoldsen traced some of the concepts underpinning these modern surveillance technologies back to the Reconstruction-era Black codes, laws enacted following the Civil War to prevent African Americans from achieving social and political autonomy, describing them as part of a system designed to “exploit and perpetuate racism.”

Indeed, the neighborhood watches in which Facebook communities like Westgate Watch are rooted were first established by the National Sheriff’s Association in the 1970s, created with the idea that crime is highest in racially and economically diverse neighborhoods.

“I think an issue is that a group like Westgate Watch, however well intentioned, if you’re constantly suspicious, or drumming up anxiety and fear about what’s going on in your neighborhood, you may be conditioning yourself to look for things that aren’t there,” said Kim. “And some of the problems they post in the group, you absolutely don’t need to call the police for some of these issues. … Maybe someone is walking through the streets, and they’re homeless, but because you’re conditioned to be suspicious of them, you’re posting a picture of them just walking down the street.” 

McMillan said the group was cognizant of these concerns, adopting what he termed “objectively suspicious behavior” as a posting standard. “It’s never anybody just walking through,” he said, “but if it’s somebody walking through with a lawnmower, who doesn’t have a gas can, that might be suspicious.” He also repeatedly described Westgate Watch as “transparent,” despite the fact that the group is private and carefully vets its membership. He also said the group page includes a list of social services, and has made efforts to inform members that police don’t need to be the first call in every situation.

“There’s a tendency where the more cameras, the more surveillance, the more suspects,” Daniels said. “And I’m talking about suspects where, bottom line, they haven’t done anything wrong. But they might look wrong. They might be in the quote-unquote ‘wrong neighborhood.’ Why is that person whose car is backfiring driving through my neighborhood? And then all of a sudden people are becoming suspects when they might be your neighbor, might be the person down the street.”

For some in Westgate, the idea of a fellow neighbor weighing the perceived suspicion of anyone who happens down the street can be unsettling. “I don’t want anybody watching me who isn’t accountable to anyone else,” Jennings said.

“The adage that comes to mind is ‘with great power comes great responsibility,’ and they are obviously positioning themselves as a powerful group here,” Kim said. “And I just don’t know how they’re being held accountable, or if there are even processes for them to be held accountable. And I think the big fear is that at some point … someone will either be killed or super-harmed because of this group.”

Others, like Susan Wallace-Parsons, who has called Westgate home since 1987, said the group has increased her feelings of comfort and safety. “No matter what, some people will be suspicious and scared, but it makes me feel better because I think, well, if I’m walking down the street, they’re going to see me if something happens to me. I won’t just disappear,” said Wallace-Parsons, who credited the group with capturing images of the person who stole her bike from her unlocked garage. Though the bike was never recovered, Wallace-Parsons said the incident served as a reminder to take greater caution with her surroundings, and reaffirmed the value Westgate Watch can provide residents. “I feel it’s people just trying to keep the neighborhood safe,” she said.

Even critics of Westgate Watch acknowledged that the neighborhood has issues that need to be addressed, particularly regarding narcotics and prostitution, and that the community would benefit from establishing better common ground between its residents. Additionally, everyone interviewed expressed solidarity with Westgate Watch’s underlying aim of making the community safer, even as some disagreed with tactics that they believed to be invasive and isolationist, positioning Westgate as a digitally gated community rather than an essential part of Hilltop.

“It’s this idea that problems are bleeding over from Hilltop rather than realizing we’re part of the fabric of the city,” Jennings said. “When people ask me where I’m from, I never say Westgate. I say the West Side or Hilltop. As a West Side resident, I’m not at all ashamed to say I live in Hilltop. It’s a great neighborhood. Does it have its problems? Absolutely. No one is disputing that. Does it feel like sometimes it’s been left behind by other thriving neighborhoods in the city? Absolutely. But this idea of us versus them? You get nowhere with that kind of attitude.”

“I think the whole point, for me, is this is a great moment for the neighborhood to come together to lead by example, and to [inspire] other neighborhoods and even the city to start diving into how community really works, and how neighbors can be better to each other,” Kim said. “Absolutely there are better ways to engage citizens, to engage neighbors. And those alternatives, I think, are going to be much more effective in creating safer communities.”

Correction: The article originally stated that J.R. McMillan moved to Westgate from New Albany. He actually moved from a home on the municipal limits of New Albany, according to Dispatch reporting. Alive regrets the error.