Neighborhood watch goes digital

Beacon Falls resident and retired police officer Bill McCasland checks the Nextdoor app on his phone last week. McCasland and his neighbors are using the app as a digital neighborhood watch. –LUKE MARSHALL
Beacon Falls resident and retired police officer Bill McCasland checks the Nextdoor app on his phone last week. McCasland and his neighbors are using the app as a digital neighborhood watch. –LUKE MARSHALL

BEACON FALLS — Residents have taken neighborhood watch into the digital age.

“Every once in a while there would be a rash of thefts from motor vehicles, cars being broken into. About two years ago we had a rash of them and they were hitting my neighborhood. People weren’t communicating,” said Coventry Lane resident Bill McCasland, who is a retired Beacon Falls police officer and currently does security consulting.

McCasland started to try and inform his neighbors about what was happening by posting it on social media, but had some concerns about how public his posts were.

“I was learning about these thefts and was using Facebook to tell people that there was a theft in the neighborhood,” McCasland said. “On Facebook you never know who is going to see it because everybody could see it.”

McCasland said one of his friends recommended a website and app called Nextdoor. According to the Nextdoor’s website, the company prides itself on being a private social media company.

“Nextdoor is the private social network for you, your neighbors and your community. It’s the easiest way for you and your neighbors to talk online and make all of your lives better in the real world,” the website says.

McCasland and Burton Road resident Angela Moffat spearheaded the introduction of the app to their neighborhood.

“It started with one or two neighbors and just mushroomed from there. We are up to 134 folks now on this app,” McCasland said.

The app allows users to draw boundaries and decide how big their “neighborhood” is going to be.

McCasland and Moffat set up their neighborhood to stretch from Highland Avenue, through Fairfield Place, to the end of Burton Road.

“It started off as a neighborhood watch. Then we found out there were many more people in the community that wanted to be part of it,” Moffat said.

Rather than expand their neighborhood any further, McCasland has been trying to get the other side of town to set up their own neighborhood.

“That way the sides can talk to each other and keep the awareness going,” McCasland said.

Although McCasland and Moffat set this up with the idea of helping warn neighbors of potential crime, it has grown into a way for neighbors to keep in touch and get to know each other.

McCasland said people will put out alerts when they find a lost animal or when they are having a yard sale at their house.

“One girl said there was a hornet’s nest at the end of her street. At first I thought why are you telling us this, but school was going to start and kids were going to be getting on the bus and those white-faced hornets are nasty. So somebody in the neighborhood said they would take care of the nest,” McCasland said.

Moffat said the app has allowed her to talk to people in her neighborhood she had not had the opportunity to talk with before.

“It has opened up communications with several neighbors I may not have had without the app. We have been sharing stories and pertinent information among ourselves regarding our neighborhood and our town,” Moffat said.

When it does come to crime, McCasland said he has told his neighbors to use the app to alert people but not to try and stop the crime themselves.

“We always tell the neighbors don’t take the law into your own hands, but be a reporter. Observe, keep your eyes open, and report things,” McCasland said. “We are not trying to take anything away from the police and we’re not trying to be vigilantes.”

For Coventry Lane resident James Hagan the app is almost like having an old neighborhood watch program running again.

“I’m not typically on social media, as I don’t have Facebook or anything like that. That said, I do like the Nextdoor app as it resembles the good old fashioned neighborhood watch program from years ago. But instead of going to watch meetings, neighbors can update each other with advice or concerns online and immediately. Works for me, and I believe it has an effect on watching the neighborhood,” Hagan said.

McCasland said the app has been able to take the idea of a neighborhood watch program to the next level. One of the main draws of the app over the traditional neighborhood watch is the amount of people that participate.

“You’d probably get five or six people in your house for a meeting. We have 134 people. So it is big and it’s fast. If somebody puts out a message and hits send, all 134 people get the message. In an old fashioned neighborhood watch you’d have to call people on the phone, you’d have to hope they’d have a phone, you’d have to hope they are home,” McCasland said.

McCasland said people have grown comfortable with technology and this is a way to put that technology to good use.

“So we embrace technology, we do good things with it, we are vigilant, and you get people talking again,” McCasland said. “It’s social media being used the right way.”

Correction: This story has been updated to correct the spelling of Angela Moffat’s name.