Nosy Neighbors Are a Dying Breed of Crime-Fighter

Why you should make friends with the people next door.

As details spilled out of Cleveland’s “House of Horrors,” I asked the same question that you undoubtedly asked. How on earth could three young girls be held captive in a modest home in the middle of a crowded neighborhood for more than a decade without anyone knowing?

That’s when it hit me. We are slowly losing a crucial crime-fighting tool: nosy neighbors.

Gary Heidnik, Philadelphia’s most notorious serial killer who stocked his own house of horror with kidnapped girls was caught because of a nosy neighbor who smelled something bad coming from Heidnik’s house and called police. It was the smell of death. Heidnik kidnapped, tortured and raped six women. He died by lethal injection in July 1999.

Twice in my broadcasting career I have put together a special report called “The Burglar Poll.” I did it first in Chicago and then again at NBC 10 in Philly. We got questionnaires filled out by more than 500 prisoners convicted of burglary. I then went to the prisons and interviewed five of them.

We asked them to name the number one deterrent to robbing a house. A dog was the number one answer with 37 percent. The prisoners said they are too noisy and too unpredictable. Many said that when they hear a dog, they just move on to the next house. A close second with 34 percent was nosy neighbors. A handful of the convicts were in prison because a neighbor called police.

Nowadays, we are less involved with each other. Most people are more likely to “friend” someone online whom they’ve never met, than someone who lives across the street. As a society, we are reaching out to the world, but not our neighbors.

It is one of the reasons we see fewer and fewer neighborhood crime-watch signs. The program has been hit with litigation, and bad press, but more than anything it is weakened by an increased sense in America that we don’t want to get involved.

But if we don’t, who will?

The Cleveland Police Department is taking some heat for not catching the kidnappers who were right under their noses. But before we point a finger at them, we need to take a look at society. We need to do a better job of looking out for each other and getting involved.