Should We Reexamine Neighborhood Watch Programs?

Crime, News

Sanford, Florida, the community where Trayvon Martin was shot and killed in February 2012, recently urged members of the local neighborhood watch not to carry firearms and to leave law enforcement to police. Communities around the country have critically reexamined their own neighborhood watch policies, hoping to prevent a repeat of the Travyon Martin case in their own towns.

Sanford Stops Short of Banning Guns in Neighborhood Watch

Florida is known for being a pro-gun state, and Sanford stopped short of outright banning citizens from carrying guns while performing duties in their neighborhood watch. However, said Sanford Police Chief Cecil Smith, “We are strongly suggesting, strongly recommending, strongly urging people not to be armed in the performance of neighborhood watch.”

That has always been the policy of the official Neighborhood Watch program, which train citizens to be the “eyes and ears” of the neighborhood – and no more. 

George Zimmerman, who was not a member of a registered Neighborhood Watch program but described himself as a watch volunteer, was armed the night he began to follow Trayvon Martin, believing the teen was acting suspiciously. He called the police to report suspicious activity but confronted Martin before officers arrived on the scene, and in the struggle, Zimmerman’s gun went off, killing Martin. Zimmerman was acquitted of murder in July of this year.

Sanford will not stop citizens from carrying guns while on watch, but will issue a new handbook and require training and registration with the department.

Brothers Charged in Baltimore Neighborhood Watch Incident

A December, 2010 case in Maryland echoed the Trayvon Martin story when two white brothers beat a black teen in a Baltimore neighborhood as part of their community watch program. Eliyahu Werdesheim and his brother Avi were arrested and charged with assaulting the teen, who was walking on the street when they pulled up in their vehicle and got out to confront him. They argue that they were acting in self-defense, as the teen grabbed a nail-studded board from a construction site when he saw the men approaching. Others saw it as a case of racial profiling. Eliyahu Werdesheim faced 10 years in prison but ended up with three years of probation. The judge also ordered him to write essays about diversity in Baltimore. Charges against his brother Avi were dropped.

Eliyahu Werdesheim, who is Jewish, was a member of the Jewish neighborhood watch group Shomrim. “Shomrim” means “watchers” or “guards” in Hebrew and Shomrim watch groups exist in Brooklyn, Baltimore, and London neighborhoods with a high Jewish population. One Shomrim group in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, has attracted controversy, as some believe it increases tension between the African-American residents and the Jewish residents of the neighborhood and promotes racial profiling .

Non-standard Protocols for Neighborhood Watch Groups

The official Neighborhood Watch program is sponsored by the National Sheriff’s Association, which trains and supports groups all over the country. The website states the Neighborhood Watch policy as: “Community members only serve as the extra ‘eyes and ears’ and should report their observations of suspicious activities to their local law enforcement.  Trained law enforcement should be the only ones ever to take action; citizens should never try to take action on those observations.”

Over 22,000 groups have registered with the Association online, meaning they adhere to the guidelines handed down from the Association. But many groups haven’t registered and follow their own rules. In cases where training is lacking or protocol is unclear, more incidents of excessive force may arise.

The advantage of neighborhood watch programs is clear: lower crime. A 2008 report from the Justice Department found that such programs do reduce crime overall, with the efficacy of individual programs varying from community to community. The disadvantages, which include cases of “vigilante justice” are apparently rare. To eradicate them completely, community watch programs need to train their volunteers on their protocols and ensure they’re following them.