Networking with the Neighbours

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RITAM MITRA talks to Rohit Ralli about safety issues in his neighbourhood
rohit4-website version
Neighbourhood Watch programs have been in place in Sydney since 1984, but have struggled to keep up with increasing population densities as well as the fast-changing nature of criminal conduct and community interaction around Sydney’s suburbs. The power of social media has led to the rise of EyeWatch, a Facebook-based version of Neighbourhood Watch, which enables local residents to communicate with each other on a real-time basis, while also relaying their concerns directly to the police, whose involvement is paramount to the success of these programs. Following a spate of break-ins in the Sydney north shore suburb of Wahroonga, local resident Rohit Ralli decided it was time for EyeWatch to hit the Ku-ring-gai Shire – and its success has been remarkable.
“When we had the break-ins, which were quite blatant, literally 100m from my house, there were four on the same day, and one of the families was at home,” recalls Rohit, who was also recently recognised as Ku-ring-gai Council’s Citizen of the Year. “They were getting more and more brazen to hit four houses in a row in winter, when everyone was huddled around the television and fireplace, to clean out the study or another room”.
Rohit first got in touch with Neighbourhood Watch about the problem, then called the NSW Premier Barry O’Farrell, whose office is in Wahroonga, and with whom Rohit had previously worked.
“His office was extremely helpful. They put me in touch with their colleagues and the EyeWatch coordinator,” explains Rohit.
At that stage the EyeWatch program was a start-up, and Rohit decided it was time for the community to see how EyeWatch could help them.
“I called the people from EyeWatch, the police and Neighbourhood Watch and I said, ‘Why don’t you come over to my place – I’ll get 20 of my neighbours together, and we can discuss the two main vertical issues in our neighbourhood – one, retirees; and two, young families who don’t have much time’. Both these verticals have very specific needs and handicaps,” reveals Rohit.
After chatting with EyeWatch and the police, Rohit and his neighbours decided EyeWatch could help – but only with some fine-tuning. He targeted 300 residents with stickers and fridge magnets, encouraging neighbours to get to know each other and exchange telephone numbers.
“Some of the people haven’t got to know their neighbours in 25 years. The bottom line is the police won’t show up depending on the priority of the problem they have – it could be 10 minutes or it could be 3 hours. But when you call neighbours, 2 of them can show up in 2 minutes,” he explains.
And the project has taken off in spectacular fashion. “There’s been a phenomenal change in the dynamics of the community. Kids are playing together, adults are setting up bridge clubs, and there are joint yoga sessions going on,” says Rohit. He even organised a free fair, including a free sausage sizzle, clowns, balloons, as well as the presence of policemen and women, paramedics with an ambulance, and SES members. Barry O’Farrell and Member for Bradfield Bob Fletcher were also present, and with 300-500 people turning out, it was no surprise that a sense of community became even more prevalent, following the fair.
Of course, although encouraging a sense of community is pivotal to the success of EyeWatch, one of its main benefits lies in the use of social media to address issues and suspicious behaviour in the community.Untitled
“It’s all about rights and obligations, and some people are unsure,” says Rohit. “The police have told us, you have the right to ask a question of someone on your street, and you have the right to take photographs of that person as long as you’re in a public place. In the event there’s an issue, you can post on the Facebook page – if there’s a car in front of your house you don’t recognise, you can go and ask them, ‘Sorry, but what are you doing in my neighbourhood?’ and if they don’t answer you, you can put the number plate on Facebook, where the EyeWatch co-ordinator and the police will be able to follow it in real-time. The community has become far more confident – because they can ask questions and the police will back them up.”
Rohit acknowledges that the Neighbourhood Watch program had its benefits – but is stuck in the past. “Neighbourhood Watch is a has-been. It was a great program when the only way people could communicate was to actually get out of the house and talk. Nowadays, nobody gets out of the house. Everybody is online. We’re putting up EyeWatch stickers on people’s doors, windows, bus stops,” he says.
And it’s definitely working, as there have been literally zero break-ins in the area since the EyeWatch implementation.
“The community is the eyes and ears of the police. The minute we see anything suspicious, we take a photograph. We don’t take action ourselves, and the police will follow that photograph up straight away. I’m sure the word has gone out to would-be criminals that this isn’t a neighbourhood that is criminal-friendly,” says Rohit.
For him, one of the biggest success stories was a neighbour who was previously quite reclusive. “There is a gentleman four houses down from me who has lived here for 32 years. He only used to meet his neighbours twice a year, and now he’s out there waving to people, stopping and chatting and talking to people. There’s an elderly lady who lives next door to him whose husband just passed away – he’s fixing her wiring and taking her garbage out. He called me three weeks ago, saying there’s a car outside your house, here’s the number plate, what should I do? I told him to ask them what they were doing there – and he did!” says Rohit.
The remarkable increase in community spirit is by no means a by-product of EyeWatch – indeed, the fantastic culture created by the program is actually one of the key drivers towards building a safer community for each and every resident.  While EyeWatch’s Facebook programs are well and truly underway, there are more developments planned for the future, with Twitter and SMS components also in the pipeline.
Rohit’s efforts have made a significant impact on the neighbourhood community in building a relationship based on trust and mutual respect.
Has your neighbourhood caught on yet? Visit the website for more information on how EyeWatch can help your community.

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