Protecting Your Community: Considerations in Creating a Safe Community Environment

Date: December 4, 2014

The transition into the cold and dark of winter offers an excellent opportunity for community associations to analyze safety and security issues. In this article, we will examine some of the routine steps a community association can take in order to minimize the risk of crime and prevent injury in the community. We will also examine the legal issues associated with maintaining or instituting a “neighborhood watch” program.

Physical safeguards: Initially, there are a number of items community boards should routinely inspect in order to deter crime and prevent injury to either person or property in the community. A walking survey of the community should be performed by members of the board and/or the community’s managing agent to identify hazardous conditions. Some of the items to specifically look for include broken or poor lighting, broken or weak fencing, broken or improperly functioning locks and doors (including security and access gates), unkempt landscaping which threatens damage to person or property (dead limbs) and trip hazards in walkways. If security cameras are installed, they should be inspected to ensure they are working properly. Alternatively, if a board wishes to install a camera system, they should work with a licensed and insured contractor to set up cameras in key locations. We also recommend adopting a security camera policy which assists in immunizing the board from potential liabilities which may arise from having security camera(s) in place.   By reviewing these items, boards can help minimize crime and injury around the community.

Educating the residents:  Additionally, boards should not overlook the educational aspect of safety and security issues. We recommend that boards distribute information to community members on how to keep their units or homes protected and in a safe condition. Specifically, homeowners should be reminded to keep their windows and doors locked at all times and not to allow strangers to access buildings or common areas – don’t allow people to tailgate you into a private access location! Homeowners should also be reminded to keep their homes in a clean and orderly condition. Unkempt properties that give the illusion of being uninhabited frequently draw the attention of vandals. We also recommend that crime reports be sent out on a periodic basis so members are aware of issues in the community that they should look out for.

Should you have a neighborhood watch program?  Neighborhood watch programs have received considerable attention as result of cases like the George Zimmerman matter in Florida. The first issue to consider in determining to maintain or implement a neighborhood watch program is whether or not the board already has a duty to provide security in the community. If not, and if the board decides on its own to provide security, then this can have the perverse effect of creating more liability for the board, not less, if a resident is injured. In essence, the argument is that by choosing to secure the community, the board may be held liable for any injuries that occur as a result of failing to perform that duty or failing to perform it well. Courts have gone both ways on this issue, but the risk should be kept in mind  if your community determines to implement a neighborhood watch program.

In most cases, the governing documents do not give the board a specific security duty. If this is the case, the board may not want to take on the risk of implementing or monitoring a security program such as a neighborhood watch. While the board is generally authorized to take such action based on the powers and duties section in the governing documents, certain protections should be adopted in order to insulate the community from liability.

First and foremost, it should be made clear that any member of a neighborhood watch committee should not “take matters into their own hands.” Their job is to watch, not act: if suspicious activity is observed, the police should be contacted immediately. Secondly, the board should contact its insurance carrier to see what type of protection is in place for volunteer security programs. If no insurance is in place or if it cannot be obtained, the community should consider hiring a professional security agency and have an indemnification agreement signed.

If you have a neighborhood watch program in place or if you are considering implementing one, we strongly encourage you to contact your attorney to discuss the associated liabilities and whether or not a program of this nature is appropriate for your community.

In sum, there are a number of measures community associations can take to help minimize crime and the potential for injury in their communities. The board and community members should work together to identify hazardous conditions. If a threatening or suspicious condition exists, the proper authorities should be contacted to investigate the matter.