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Neighborhood Watch Scrutinized After Florida Shooting

Last August, Wendy Dorival got a call about setting up a local neighborhood watch. As the volunteer coordinator for the Police Department here, she gets such calls regularly, and the city already had at least 10 active watch groups. So she thought nothing of this call, from George Zimmerman.

She set up a visit for the next month at the Retreat at Twin Lakes, a gated community that had been dealing with a string of burglaries. When 25 residents showed up, a decent turnout, she had the residents introduce themselves; after all, people join the groups to look out for each other. She then gave a PowerPoint presentation and distributed a handbook. As she always does, she emphasized what a neighborhood watch is — and what it is not.

In every presentation, “I go through what the rules and responsibilities are,” she said Thursday. The volunteers’ role, she said, is “being the eyes and ears” for the police, “not the vigilante.” Members of a neighborhood watch “are not supposed to confront anyone,” she said. “We get paid to get into harm’s way. You don’t do that. You just call them from the safety of your home or your vehicle.”

Using a gun in the neighborhood watch role would be out of the question, she said in an interview.

Mr. Zimmerman was there, she recalled, and the local group appointed him their coordinator. But on Feb. 26, Mr. Zimmerman, 28, pursued, confronted and fatally shot Trayvon Martin, 17, an unarmed black high school student who had been carrying only an iced tea and a bag of Skittles.

In the weeks since, public reaction has gone from a simmer to a full boil.

Mr. Zimmerman, who is Hispanic, has been interviewed by the police, but officials decided not to charge him in the shooting, citing his assertion of self-defense under a lenient Florida law known as Stand Your Ground. He was licensed to carry a concealed weapon. He has said nothing publicly about the case in the face of the growing community anger and rallies calling for his prosecution.

On Thursday, the city’s police chief, Bill Lee, announced that he would temporarily step aside.

“While I stand by the Sanford Police Department, its personnel and the investigation that was conducted in regards to the Trayvon Martin case,” he said at a news conference, “it is apparent that my involvement in this matter is overshadowing the process.”

The day before, the City Commission passed a vote of no confidence in the chief by three votes to two.
Police chief steps aside in Trayvon Martin case

This week, the state announced that a grand jury would be empanelled next month to review the case, and the civil rights division of the Department of Justice said it would open an investigation.

On Thursday evening, Gov. Rick Scott and Attorney General Pam Bondi of Florida announced that the state attorney who had been handling the case, Norman R. Wolfinger, was stepping aside “to avoid any appearance of conflict of interest or impropriety,” and that the state attorney from Jacksonville, Angela B. Corey, would take over the investigation.

Also on Thursday evening, a boisterous rally led by the Rev. Al Sharpton took place at a lakefront park in Sanford. People — some arriving by bus from Atlanta, others having flown in from around the country — wore homemade T-shirts reading “I am Trayvon Martin,” and carried posters with his image; others had posters with Mr. Zimmerman’s picture and calls for his arrest.

Many carried bottles of Arizona Iced Tea and wore makeshift necklaces with a box of Skittles around their necks. Mr. Sharpton introduced Trayvon Martin’s mother, Sybrina Fulton, who told the crowd, “Trayvon is your son.”

To Ms. Dorival, the widening controversy has led to a false impression about neighborhood watch programs, which she said strengthen local communities and help reduce crime.

“I believe in neighborhood watch,” she said. “I advocate for neighborhood watch. I don’t want this black eye for neighborhood watch.”

In Sanford, she 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. Members of that group, Ms. Dorival said, “are armed only with a radio.”

A wide range of neighborhood watch organizations exist across the country. Some have patrols, while others like Sanford’s do not. But the National Sheriffs’ Association, which sponsors the 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, the manual states: “Each member is liable as an individual for civil and criminal charges should he exceed his authority.”

The neighborhood watch movement came together some 40 years ago through the efforts of the National Sheriffs’ Association. Chris Tutko, the national director for the program at the association, said there were 25,000 registered neighborhood watch groups in the United States today, and far more unregistered groups like the one in Sanford.

“This is a common-sense organization,” Mr. Tutko said. “If you carry a weapon, most likely you’re going to turn into a victim, or worse.” In his 40 years of work in law enforcement, he said, he has not seen another case like the one involving Mr. Zimmerman.

Potentially troublesome people do sometimes join, he said. Occasionally “an aggressive person” will show up, he said, but “usually the neighborhood watch calms that person down, or gets rid of them.”

But criminal justice experts say there is risk of a would-be Harry Callahan, the “Dirty Harry” character played by Clint Eastwood. And the spread of laws allowing ready access to legal firearms can put guns into the wrong hands, said James Alan Fox, a professor of criminology at Northeastern University in Boston.

“I trust most people who carry concealed weapons, but not all of them,” Professor Fox said. “Lots of people walk around with firearms concealed in their clothing who have paranoid ideas concealed in their head.”

And while the Florida law that Mr. Zimmerman has apparently cited in his defense allows people to use deadly force against assailants, Kent Scheidegger, the legal director of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation in California, said that the law’s protections are diminished if the person using deadly force initiates the confrontation.

“If it wasn’t really self-defense, then Stand Your Ground doesn’t come into play,” Mr. Scheidegger said. But, he added, it is hard to judge the situation before trial, “because you don’t know what really happened.”

The shooting in Sanford has left Ms. Dorival, the police department’s volunteer coordinator, shaken. She has received e-mails “with a lot of curse words,” she said, and some that accuse her of having caused the problem, writing that “I taught this guy to shoot a gun.”

“You cannot control people’s actions,” Ms. Dorival said. “I do my best to lay the groundwork,” for conducting a safe and successful neighborhood watch program, “and tell them what they can and cannot do.”

She added, “Obviously, he didn’t follow the basic philosophy of the neighborhood watch.”


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