The town’s police chief urges neighborhood watch volunteers not to carry guns.
Nearly two years ago, an unarmed 17-year-old Black teenager — who was walking back to his father’s house after buying a snack at the local 7-Eleven — was followed and, despite police instructions against it, eventually accosted by an armed 26-year-old local neighborhood watch volunteer who shot the teen dead 70 yards from his house.
The incident at a predominately White gated community, in which Trayvon Martin was profiled, targeted and ultimately executed by the overreaching watch volunteer, George Zimmerman, has forced many to question the role of neighborhood watch and community policing. Martin, a high-school student from Miami who was staying with his father, had no history of trouble in the area. Zimmerman — despite not denying shooting the teen — would ultimately be acquitted on the grounds of self-defense.
At the site of the unfortunate incident, the police chief has announced that the city will move to help prevent another neighborhood watch shooting.
At a community meeting last week, Cecil Smith — Sanford, Fla.’s replacement for Bill Lee, Jr. who was fired as sheriff for his handling of the Martin case — will announce the new requirements for the city’s neighborhood watch program, including background checks for all volunteers, a six-week training program for block captains and continuous monitoring by the city’s police department. The department will also recommend that volunteers not be armed while on duty, though the request cannot be enforced due to the state’s concealed carry laws.
Prior to the announcement of these reforms, Smith suspended the neighborhood watch program.
“Neighborhood watch was always intended to be a program where you observe what is going on and report it to police. In light of everything that has gone on, that’s what we’re really going to go back and push. That’s what this program is and that’s all it is,” said Shannon Cordingly, spokeswoman for the Sanford Police Department, to Reuters. “People in the community are nervous to join a group [neighborhood watch] that was tarnished in the media and got a bad image with everything that happened. We really want to put those fears to rest and get the community going on the program.”
Operative word: ‘watch’
“The objective of neighborhood watch is to observe, identify and report, and that’s what we’re getting back to,” said Smith. Smith recognizes that the “suggestion” not to carry firearms on watch will cause pushback. “We’re not going to make everybody happy,” Smith continued.
“We’re not in the business of violating anyone’s 2nd Amendment rights.”
At question with the recommendation is the enforcement of what most experts consider to be the neighborhood watch programs’ most important tenet — volunteers are to watch, report and not get involved physically. Per Sanford’s 2012 Neighborhood Watch Program Handbook:
“You will add your “eyes and ears” to those of the Police Department which cannot be everywhere, all the time, by keeping a watchful eye and open ear to what is happening in your neighborhood. You will extend their ability to provide security by reporting anything unusual or suspicious, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, so they can follow up on your leads. What you will not do is get physically involved with any activity you report or apprehension of any suspicious persons. This is the job of the law enforcement agency.”
Zimmerman placed the Sanford Police Department in an awkward position when he confronted Martin. Zimmerman explicitly violated not only spoken directions from the 911 dispatcher, who told him to wait for the police and to not engage Martin, but also the written guidelines of the program.
“Patrol members should be trained by law enforcement,” reports the National Sheriffs’ Association Neighborhood Watch manual. “It should be emphasized to members that they do not possess police powers and they shall not carry weapons or pursue vehicles. They should also be cautioned to alert police or deputies when encountering strange activity. MEMBERS SHOULD NEVER CONFRONT SUSPICIOUS PERSONS WHO COULD BE ARMED AND DANGEROUS.”
“All you do is make the phone call, step back and let law enforcement do their job,” said Chris Tutko, the former director of national neighborhood watch for the National Sheriffs’ Association.
At its core, neighborhood watch is just a first-alert system. The idea is that community members keep an open eye for disturbances and potential threats in their neighborhoods, expanding police awareness. The watch groups are supposed to report their discoveries to the police and take no further action, as these groups do not constitute community policing.
No guns, no volunteers?
Neighborhood watch started formally under a 1972 proposal from the National Sheriffs’ Association. It was a response to the outrage from the rape and murder of Catherine Susan “Kitty” Genovese, who — despite screaming out for help and who was seen being attacked — died without anyone seeking assistance. Allegedly, some of the witnesses argued that they didn’t come forward or stop the attack because they “didn’t want to get involved.”
Logically, the request that community watch volunteers not carry weapons seems to be ordinary, reasonable and consistent with the program’s mission — the volunteers have no apprehension or de-escalation training, no weapon training, no authority to arrest or to confront and are not covered by the police liability coverage. However, many feel that Smith’s “recommendation” infringes on volunteers’ right to carry and may discourage some from enlisting in the volunteer watch.
“Someone walking through the neighborhood walking their dog who carries a concealed handgun for their own self-defense wouldn’t be subject to [giving up their gun], but a person who is on the neighborhood watch would be,” said Sean Caranna, executive director of Florida Carry, a grassroots organization that works to promote gun rights. “It puts people in a very strange position.”
“At the end of the day, this is a legal question the courts are going to consider: Does a rule like this unfairly limit a person’s access to carry firearms?” said Ken Novak, a professor of criminal justice at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, who has studied neighborhood watch groups.
Caranna argues that asking volunteers to be unarmed suggest that the police feel that volunteers are immune from criminal attack, which would scare volunteers from duty in dangerous parts of the city. “We’re telling people who are in fact more subject to attack that they should not be armed,” he said.
Armed volunteer watches, however, create a phenomenon in which ordinary citizens assume responsibility for public safety in violation of anti-vigilante or anti-mob rule ordinances. This creates an atmosphere of the “citizen police” that has already been bolstered through the establishment of non-retreat confrontation laws, such as “stand your ground.”
In some communities, the effect of approximating the police can be as complete as the providing of uniforms, badges and marked patrol cars that resemble a service squad car. These “shadow police” — who tend to be under-trained and under-supervised in cash-strapped smaller communities — constitute a public threat in the sense that unvetted and potentially dangerous civilians are approximating authority they are not entitled or fit to assume.
An example of this happened in 2010, when Eliyahu and Avi Werdesheim, two members of a neighborhood watch group in Baltimore, followed a 15-year-old Black teenager in their car, got out and beat the boy with a nail-riddled board, telling him that he did not belong there. The boy suffered a laceration to the head and a broken wrist from the attack. Eliyahu Werdesheim received a three-year suspended sentence and a three-year probation on convictions of second-degree assault and false imprisonment. Avi Werdesheim was acquitted.
“Over the last 40 years, the apparent effectiveness of neighborhood watch has been extremely uneven. Most programs spring up in white, middle- or upper-income communities—the kind of places where crime isn’t a major problem to begin with. As a result, the programs don’t have the potential to make a significant impact, and any effect they might have on crime rates is difficult for researchers to detect.”
“Neighborhood watch has the potential to make a difference in low-income, high-crime communities, but it rarely gets off the ground in those areas. Many residents don’t trust their neighbors, so they won’t attend or host community meetings, let alone patrol the streets at night. Distrust of police is also a factor, as local sheriffs are often the ones who provide training and support for the program.”
Ultimately, in addressing and reforming neighborhood watch, law enforcement must be clear with what it expects from the community and firm in its policies toward obtaining and safeguarding those goals. At the end, law enforcement cannot ask the public to police for them and must be prepared to accept the repercussions when they fail to stop people from taking the law into their own hands.