During the Revolutionary War, town criers would walk the streets at night to make sure everything was in order.
"The town crier historically went around Philadelphia saying, ‘All is well, all is well,’" noted Anthony Murphy of Philadelphia Operation Town Watch.
If all weren’t well, the crier would ring a bell he carried.
Murphy believes town criers were the forerunners to the police and, later, neighborhood Town Watch groups.
If that’s the case, then it could be said that Town Watch dates back to 1776.
Town Watch groups are comprised of concerned citizens who band together to patrol their neighborhoods and make sure all is well, day and night. These volunteers serve as the "eyes and ears" of the community, and of local police.
On Tuesday, residents — especially those involved in Town Watch — around the nation will commemorate National Night Out, an event that encourages citizens to sit outside their homes with the lights on in an effort to deter crime. The event was created in 1983 to heighten awareness of crime and drug prevention, induce neighborhood spirit and strengthen police and community relations.
For the first time ever, Philadelphia will kick off National Night Out the evening before the actual event and in South Philly. Normally, the rally is held at noon on the day of the event at Dilworth Plaza, 15th Street and JFK Boulevard. Philadelphia Operation Town Watch switched the assembly to the evening so more people would be free to attend, said Murphy.
The kickoff will take place Monday from 6-10 p.m. in the Wal-Mart parking lot at 1601 S. Columbus Blvd. Guest speakers will include city dignitaries, police and representatives from GREAT, DARE, SWAT, the Secret Service, community crime and drug-prevention groups, civic and youth organizations and the military.
The family-oriented rally also will feature live entertainment, food, prizes, face painting, a moon bounce, Philadelphia Eagles mascot Swoop, a demonstration by CounterStrike Kenpo and more.
Murphy is expecting a couple thousand people.
"This year we are truly trying to make history in that last year Philly was rated fifth in the nation as far as participation in National Night Out," he said. "We are striving to be number one."
Local Town Watches and other civic groups are getting in on the act, as in previous years.
Bella Vista Town Watch, along with Third District police and Hawthorne Neighbors Town Watch, is sponsoring a community event Tuesday from 6-9 p.m. in the parking lot of Sherwin Williams, 10th Street and Washington Avenue.
The purpose of the free event is to raise awareness of safety concerns in the neighborhood and let the community know that Town Watches exist, said BVTW treasurer Nathan Snyder, whose group serves South Street to Washington Avenue between 11th and Sixth streets.
Healthcare, law enforcement and other civic safety groups will set up booths in the store lot, said Snyder. Food and refreshments will be available. Meanwhile, the BVTW members will still be out canvassing their streets that night, he said.
Under the guidance of Raydell Fisher, Hawthorne Neighbors Town Watch serves 11th to Broad streets from South Street to Washington Avenue. The fledgling group, in its second year, does not patrol the streets like most Town Watches. Instead, neighbors simply keep an eye out for any unusual activity and behavior in the Hawthorne section.
Eventually, Fisher said, she’d like the group to evolve into a patrolling Town Watch.
In general, children are not permitted to participate in Town Watch groups. Adult members are assigned to patrol certain areas and go out in teams, said Raymond Glenn Baranowski of Southeast Community Association Town Watch, which serves Front to Sixth and Tasker to Wolf streets.
"You are the eyes and ears of the police department, but you don’t get involved," he said. "Whatever you see, you take notes and report it, just as if you were a police officer. You give descriptions, jot down locations."
The retired Baranowksi patrols his beat during the day.
According to Murphy, Philadelphia has more than 600 Town Watch groups, with a total of 17,000 trained and certified members.
"Citizens must be empowered to participate in the policing of their community, not as vigilantes, but working with neighbors in the community to provide information and assistance to police," he said.
Those interested in becoming members of a neighborhood watch must sign up with Philadelphia Operation Town Watch, the city-run umbrella organization. Candidates take training courses and attend workshops to learn how best to serve their communities as Town Watch members.
"Town Watch is instrumental in that it is organized by citizens to address the quality of life in our communities," said Murphy. "We have a responsibility to address the quality of life in our community; therefore, we play a pivotal role."