Could Trayvon Martin Happen Here?

June 11, 2012

The late-night TV news last week featured a story about the graduating class from an area police academy. The reporter pointed out that the new officers underwent seven months of training, and that several had prior military experience. And in light of the events in Sanford, Florida, it made me wonder about the training, if any, required of community watch participants, who, in some cases - like George Zimmerman - are armed, and apparently confront "suspects" with their weapons.

And could we face a similar tragedy here?

The National Sheriffs' Association, in cooperation with the U.S. Justice Department, has prepared a Neighborhood Watch Manual, which is used by many such community organizations. It is not actual law, and watch groups are not required to follow the recommendations, but it is the official position of the local cops and feds. Their stance on training and weapons is clear: "Patrol members should be trained by law enforcement. 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."

Obviously, Zimmerman's actions were contrary to these recommendations.

Another organization, the National Neighborhood Watch Institute, sells equipment that watch groups use, like signs and literature. They also have developed a handbook, which states "Always remember that your responsibility is to report crime. Do not take any risks to prevent a crime or try to make an arrest. The responsibility for apprehending criminals belongs to the police/sheriff. Neighborhood Watch participants act as additional eyes and ears for law enforcement. They do not take the law into their own hands."

These guidelines are more vague than the Sheriff's manual, but it still appears that Zimmerman's conduct was outside of the recommendations.

There are Neighborhood Block Watch Guidelines on the internet ehow.com. "Neighborhood block watch participants do not attempt to stop crimes themselves or take the law into their own hands in any manner. They are not authorized to pull over official patrol cars or cars operated by other members of the neighborhood block watch team. Members are taught not to approach suspicious people but rather to immediately report their activities and to never intervene if they know a crime is taking place. Jeopardizing their own safety or the safety of others isn't ever a consideration and must be avoided at all times."

Obviously, Zimmerman didn't follow these guidelines either.

And, it turns out that the Sanford Police Department does have it own guidelines for neighborhood watch groups. Wendy Dorival, the volunteer coordinator for the SPD, said watch groups are not even supposed to make the rounds. That is the job of another kind of volunteer organization, Citizens on Patrol, whose members are selected and trained by the police, and who drive the streets in a specially marked vehicle. And even those trained people are "armed only with a radio."

Zimmerman, of course, was armed with more than a radio. He had a license to carry a gun, and did so on his apparently unauthorized patrol, in violation of virtually every guideline on the subject of firearms.

The National Sheriffs' Association, which sponsors the Neighborhood Watch program nationwide, is absolutely clear on one point: guns have no place in a watch group. A manual distributed by the association repeatedly underscores the point: "Patrol members do not carry weapons." The manual warns that watch members should "not attempt to apprehend a person committing a crime or to investigate a suspicious activity."

It should be emphasized to members of patrols, the materials state, that "they do not possess police power and they shall not carry weapons." The consequences of not following the guidelines are severe: "Each member is liable as an individual for civil and criminal charges should he exceed his authority."

A sampling of guidelines from both sides of the country confirms that philosophy. Huntsville, Alabama Community Watch Association: "Patrol members NEVER carry firearms or weapons and they NEVER attempt to investigate suspicious activity or apprehend a suspect. If something appears suspicious, the patroller takes a position to observe from a distance and requests police assistance." Sacramento, California: "Make sure your citizen patrol never carries weapons of any kind - e.g. guns, black jack, mace, baseball bat, or knives. Never challenges anyone."

According to Richland Police Chief Rich Ficco, there are no active community watch groups in the township, or anywhere in the vicinity. And he hasn't pushed hard to create them. "My feelings are mixed. They can be good, if they understand that they are to be really good witnesses. They can be bad, if they think they are a cop or a vigilante."

And, he explained "There have been several attempts to get neighborhood watch groups together, with only the Heather Valley development succeeding. It was formed to help combat the huge amount of thefts from vehicles we were experiencing two years ago. They had a great organizer, and we held several meetings. They understood that they were there just to be really good witnesses. We eventually made a couple of arrests, one with their help. The group has since stopped their patrolling of their neighborhood. Others just don't seem to get past the original meeting. I have met with several different developments, but they can't get enough interest to keep the momentum going."

And even if watch groups do get organized, Ficco says that his department will maintain a discreet distance. And he cites a very compelling reason, one that is likely to soon be a major headache to the residents of Sanford. "We do not sanction any of the groups, so if they do it, they do it of their own free will. There is some training out there, but I don't suggest it. I just want witnesses. That is what I stress when I meet with a group wishing to start up. If we sanction them, or give them training, the liability then falls on the police department and township."

George Zimmerman's family doesn't have a lot of money, and, despite the cries by Trayvon Martin's family that they only want "justice", they are going to be spelling "justice" with a lot of $$$$'s. And the people they are going to be looking to are the taxpayers of Sanford, whose police department sanctioned the neighborhood watch. A young man is dead, and someone is going to pay.

Ficco wisely wants to make sure that this doesn't happen here.