A neighborhood watch app poses both advantages and disadvantages. But, when it comes down to it, should a homeowners association invest in one?
What Is a Neighborhood Watch App?
Technology has come a long way in the past two decades. Smartphones are now a staple in society, and there is an app for nearly everything. One type of app that has been making waves among homeowners associations is a neighborhood watch app. But does an HOA even need this app in the first place?
A community watch app works like a neighborhood watch in many ways. It allows community members to report crime and other safety-related concerns through an app, and other members can then view these reports in real time.
Is the HOA Responsible for Security?
Homeowners associations often ask whether the HOA is responsible for providing security. An association’s obligation to provide security depends on its governing documents; if the documents require it, the association must follow through with it.
For some associations, though, security boils down to restricting entry to the community. Gated communities and condominiums often need guarded access points to keep strangers outside. An HOA that provides a higher level of security assumes a heightened responsibility, which can result in potential liability. When a crime occurs, homeowners might take legal action against the HOA for failing to prevent it.
Homeowners associations should clarify to residents that the HOA is not law enforcement. When a crime does happen, residents should report it to the local police first and the HOA second.
Dissecting the Ups and Downs of Neighborhood Watch Apps
As with most things an HOA considers, weighing the pros and cons is essential. Before making a decision, an HOA board should consider all sides to clearly understand whether an app for neighborhood watch truly works for the community.
At first glance, a neighborhood crime app seems like a good idea. It provides real-time crime alerts, allows residents to report crimes, and increases engagement among community members. These features are a great way to make residents feel safer. But there are so many things that can go wrong.
An HOA crime app built on resident reports can invite false submissions and contribute to downright fear-mongering. It’s hard to filter which reports are accurate and which ones aren’t. People might tag minor incidents as significant crimes to get a response or call the association’s immediate attention. This actively helps spread false reports and can even cause paranoia.
There is also an issue of discrimination associated with such a neighborhood watch app. Similar apps such as Nextdoor and Citizen (formerly known as Vigilante) have been known to enable racial profiling and harassment. And any smart HOA board knows to avoid liability magnets like those.
It can use its existing system if a community wishes to provide residents with a platform to report safety-related issues. For instance, if a homeowner wants to report a crooked sidewalk, they can file a complaint directly with the HOA board or manager. There is no need to involve other residents like a neighborhood watch app would.
Neighborhood Watch Volunteers
Generally, it is not recommended for an association to start a neighborhood watch. Homeowners may be concerned about safety and security, but creating a neighborhood watch program could open the HOA to significant liability. And this is true regardless of whether the board or the homeowners start the program.
With a neighborhood watch around, homeowners might expect a heightened level of security. They will then start blaming the association if the watch fails to prevent a crime from happening. Some members of the watch might let the authority get to their heads. Before long, they will start carrying weapons, which can also inadvertently endanger residents.
Launching a Neighborhood Watch
If an association wishes to push through with a neighborhood watch, there are two things it must do. First, it must organize a meeting with local law enforcement, and this meeting must include both the HOA board and the volunteers who will participate in the watch program.
At the meeting, law enforcement can determine whether or not they even recommend starting a neighborhood watch in the area. If they do, they can provide volunteer training sessions and teach them how everything works.
Second, the HOA board must speak to the association’s insurance provider and lawyer. A lawyer can recommend the best course of action and what precautions to take to limit the HOA’s exposure to liability. The HOA will also likely need to secure an insurance policy to cover any potential damage from the neighborhood watch.
Creating some distance between the HOA and the watch is important. These are two unrelated groups; the watch is not an official association representative. The neighborhood watch should make it clear that it is not the police, nor does it have the powers of the police. Therefore, if there is a crime, residents must still report it to the police first.
What to Report to the Police vs the HOA Board
Some residents may need clarification about which incidents to bring to the board’s attention and which to report to the police. The answer is relatively simple.
If it is a crime — such as theft, assault, or even speeding — residents should report it to the police. The HOA board and the watch do not have jurisdiction over such matters. If a resident says a crime to either one, the HOA or watch will still have to relay it to the police. Reporting these things to the association or the watch would only slow down the process.
On the other hand, residents should report it to the HOA board or manager if it is a covenant violation. A homeowner can file a report with the association if commercial vehicles aren’t permitted in the community and a neighbor parks theirs in the driveway. The board or management company will investigate the matter and follow the appropriate procedures.
When it comes to safety, there are a handful of things residents can bring to the board’s attention. For instance, if the clubhouse has uneven floors, an owner may report it to the HOA since that can cause trip-and-fall accidents.
Technology can be life-changing when used effectively and with caution. But, something like a neighborhood watch app may dip the HOA into far deeper waters regarding liability. It is always best to consult a lawyer or an HOA management company when in doubt.
Clark Simson Miller provides HOA management services to homeowners associations and condominiums. Call us today at 865.315.7505 or contact us online to learn more!
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