Unsung heroes – How volunteers can be the single most important element in reducing crime (long read)

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Unsung heroes – How volunteers can be the single most important element in reducing crime (long read)

Andrew Morley – former Chief Executive of the London Criminal Justice Partnership (Andrew also works on policing and public safety projects for PwC Middle East)

Dr Iain Britton – Visiting Fellow, Institute for Public Safety, Crime and Justice, University of Northampton and Visiting Associate Professor, University of Central Florida

A Californian city once dubbed the ‘Murder Capital of the United States’ recorded no homicides for the whole of 2023, bringing with it a spotlight on the pivotal role that community volunteers can play in reducing crime.

This remarkable turnaround in East Palo Alto, located three miles from Stanford University, might be rare in the scale of reduction it delivered but is not alone in having volunteers as part of the response.

The introduction of Crime Prevention patrols in Tokyo has also proven effective and together these case studies provide some valuable insights which Andrew Morley and Iain Britton draw on to suggest how government and police agencies can best use volunteers to help keep communities safe.

East Palo Alto, California

In 1992, East Palo Alto was grappling with a staggering murder rate of 175 per 100,000, with 42 murders recorded that year. Even within the context of the United States’ declining murder rate – a reduction of 12 per cent last year – going from 42 to zero must be seen as a significant success which does beg the question of how it was achieved.

As is often the case it was the cumulative impact of several factors. A focus on economic development, partnership working across agencies, and an increase in police officers inevitably helped but it is widely accepted that the community itself directly played the biggest part.

Community members, tired of the violence and criminal behaviours blighting their lives, mobilised on the streets – patrolling hotspots, reassuring residents, and challenging those involved in criminal activity to take a different path, many of whom were people they had known for years as neighbours and grown up with together.

Positive, community-organised diversion and education projects followed and played their part. Drug dealing, a major driver of the violence, began to in effect be policed off the streets by the community, noting down car registration numbers that were passed to the police who sent the registered owner a letter saying that their car had been spotted in a high crime area bringing with it a deterrent effect.

This community mobilisation against crime is not unique and has strong echoes of the experience in Japan.

Adachi Ward, Tokyo

In response to rising crime rates in Adachi ward in Tokyo, over 5,000 volunteers joined crime prevention patrols.

Unlike the community-led initiative in East Palo Alto, Tokyo’s approach was government-convened but shared the same essence: empowering volunteers to act as guardians of their communities. The result was a 63 per cent drop in crime rates and a fivefold increase in residents’ sense of safety.

It was also part of a broader crime reduction package which included an emphasis on urban renewal and improvement.

There is nothing new in communities mobilising to combat crime but what can we learn from East Palo Alto and Tokyo about leveraging volunteer efforts in crime prevention?

Key Takeaways

1. Work Together

The key contrast between these two experiences is that one was initiated by the community, and the other convened by the government. Notwithstanding that difference in terms of genesis both involved community volunteers working with the police, and in practical and proactive ways. This went beyond neighbourhood policing, too often still actualised as activity ‘to’ or ‘for’ communities by the police, to the true essence of neighbourhoods playing a role in policing themselves.

In both East Palo Alto and Adachi, volunteers and police worked together as one. Genuinely together, as partners. In East Palo Alto, much of the model was community initiated and driven. The community leading on taking back their community. In Japan, the police enabled volunteers to undertake intelligence-led, crime prevention patrols in designated areas. Volunteer patrol cars were fitted with blue lights – the police in Japan have red lights – and volunteers had established channels of communication with the police, both to call for police response but also to build intelligence to prevent crime.

Volunteer efforts may emerge from frustration with perceived police inaction. However, their success hinges on constructive collaboration with the police, aligning strategies and efforts towards common safety goals.

2. Pivot to prevention

While prompted by concerns over crime the Japanese government framed volunteering as more of a long-term, proactive crime prevention tactic. This has seen a huge expansion in the number of volunteers to 2.5 million citizens by 2008, growing an inclusive mass-involvement of volunteers contributing in a sustained way over time.

In East Palo Alto, the community wasn’t being mobilised by the police for a few months to hit a local policing commanders’ crime target. They were mobilising themselves to make a sustained, long-term, community-level difference by and for the people living their lives in the community.

Pivoting to prevention in thinking about the use of volunteers means we can move beyond short-term initiatives addressing specific crimes to fostering a longer-term culture of vigilance and community resilience and renewal.

3. See the bigger picture

In both of our case studies volunteers were only one element of a broader crime reduction and community-building effort. The Adachi ward crime prevention strategy which was called the ‘Beautiful Windows Movement’ was built along two broad themes. Crime prevention and improving the appearance of neighbourhoods through beautification efforts.

Volunteer efforts were deliberately designed to support these themes. Crime prevention patrols sat alongside youth volunteers advising on how to prevent bike theft; and householders being encouraged to grow flowers to make neighborhoods more attractive and signaling their support for the crime prevention programme.

In East Palo Alto volunteer efforts expanded into other areas identified as being causal to the violence, to include cleaning up neighborhoods and intervening with young people at risk of being pulled into violence.

Aligning volunteer efforts with evidence-based crime reduction and wider community building strategies can only help to amplify the impact that volunteers can bring and increase the chances of successful outcomes. It can also help volunteers identify as part of something bigger which in turn can contribute to their sense of satisfaction and motivation.

4. Integrate volunteers

‘Mainstream’ policing on the one hand, and volunteering and community engagement on the other, can commonly be conceived as two separate things. The whole problem is in not seeing volunteering as mainstream to policing. Where volunteer schemes are seen as being run by the police and as not really being core to the ‘real’ policing, they neither grow nor thrive.

In both of our case studies there was a different strategic culture towards volunteering. The community volunteer mobilisation is not seen as being peripheral, or as being less important than the ‘real’ work the police are doing. In Adachi, volunteers were seen to be at the heart of the strategy from the start, indeed as the single most important element of it. In East Palo Alto, the mobilised community led the way. Importantly, in both examples, the volunteers integrated into policing and policing integrated with the community. Helping keep volunteers informed, supported, and safe. Helping the police be rooted, informed, and community-supported.

5. Make a sustainable impact

There is some evidence to suggest that crime reduction community organisations can have an impact on crime. Academics at New York analysed 20 years of longitudinal data and estimated that each new community organisation in a US City of 100,000 could lead to a 1.2 per cent drop in the homicide rate, a one per cent reduction in the violent crime rate, and a 0.7 percent reduction in the property crime rate.

This makes a case for supporting volunteering and in Japan the ward provides financial support to Crime Prevention Volunteers for the purchase of equipment like high visibility vests.

The longevity and impact of volunteer-driven initiatives depend on sustained support and engagement. This includes government and policing efforts to nurture and anchor community organizations within broader public safety and community development strategies, ensuring that initial enthusiasm translates into long-term commitment.


The experiences of East Palo Alto and Tokyo offer compelling evidence of the power of community volunteers in crime prevention.

By fostering collaboration, focusing on prevention and aligning the efforts of volunteers with evidence-based strategies communities can be mobilised to help keep their neighborhoods safe.

There is an additional benefit.

Many studies have demonstrated that the act of volunteering can of itself be of great value to the individual. It can help develop skills; improve physical and mental health and wellbeing; bring a sense of purpose and fulfillment; help advance careers; and encourage diverse social connections. These are important in promoting productive, healthy, and cohesive communities which in turn can be an important factor in crime prevention.

All of this adds up to a strong case for governments and policing to think strategically, and very differently, about how to involve volunteers in shaping and delivering their safer and stronger communities.