When 28-year-old George Zimmerman was discovered by Sanford, Florida police standing over the body of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, they accepted Zimmerman’s claim that he killed in self-defense as a neighborhood watch captain. Now, through a statement released by the National Sheriffs’ Association (NSA) — the parent organization of USAonWatch-Neighborhood Watch — it has been revealed that Zimmerman was not a member of any group recognized by the organization. Zimmerman violated the central tenets of Neighborhood Watch by following Martin, confronting him and carrying a concealed weapon.
“In no program that I have ever heard of does someone patrol with a gun in their pocket,” Carmen Caldwell, the Executive Director of Citizens’ Crime Watch of Miami-Dade, told theGrio. “Every city and municipality has their own policies. Here in Miami-Dade we train people only to be the eyes and ears of their communities. Not to follow and most definitely not to carry a weapon.”
Despite this, Zimmerman admitted that he had fired a weapon on the night of the incident. In addition, the non-emergency call Zimmerman placed on February 26 before the shooting revealed he had been pursuing Martin by car before accosting the youth on foot — all direct violations of Neighborhood Watch policies.
“The alleged action of a ‘self-appointed neighborhood watchman’ last month in Sanford, FL significantly contradicts the principles of the Neighborhood Watch Program,” NSA Executive Director Aaron D. Kennard, Sheriff (ret.) said in the press statement. “NSA has no information indicating the community where the incident occurred has ever even registered with the NSA Neighborhood Watch program.”
The USAonWatch-Neighborhood Watch Program manual advises volunteers about how to notice basic things about persons deemed to be suspicious such as height, weight, style of dress, and hair color. Local law enforcement agents also work with official groups to tailor specifications concerning how to discern potential criminal activity depending on the particular communities they are in. In this way, Neighborhood Watch has assured theGrio that the potential for racial profiling is curtailed. In Zimmerman’s case, he would have recognized that Trayvon Martin was a non-suspicious part of the citizenry had he received proper training. The complex where he was killed is middle class and mixed race.
But registration with the USAonWatch-Neighborhood Watch Program — which would have provided this training — is not a requirement for forming a group.
“We’ve got approximately 25,000 neighborhood watches registered now, and the neighborhood watches out there far exceed that number,” Chris Tutko, the Director of Neighborhood Watch for the National Sheriffs’ Association told theGrio. “We give people the ability to register if they want to. What registration does is give groups a repository of resources.” Registration also pairs groups with local law enforcement mentors, who sometimes run background checks on members.
“But it’s not mandatory,” Tutko continued. “A group of people can get together in an apartment building and say, ‘we’re going to watch out for each other.’ And that’s it.”
As Zimmerman acted as part of an unofficial group (or perhaps alone), he was free to make decisions without the benefit to his community of being vetted by police. Ultimately leaders of individual groups — if they are official groups — are responsible for asking police to run routine checks on new members. Sometimes this lack of precaution is a resource issue.
“When you are dealing with thousands of volunteers — people who have said we are going to step up to the plate and help make our neighborhood better — if it’s someone that I or an officer has an uncomfortable feeling about, or a neighbor might come up and say ‘that person really isn’t safe,’ we check it out,” Caldwell said. “We try to be careful about who becomes part of the Neighborhood Watch.”
But some areas lack the necessary police resources to conduct background checks on all Neighborhood Watch volunteers, because they are strapped for cash, Caldwell continued. Another pitfall is that Neighborhood Watch training does not involve any psychological evaluation.
Yet, Tutko believes that if Zimmerman had tried to join or start a registered group, he would have been stopped. The fact that Zimmerman was known to have made over 40 calls to police to report suspicious activities in recent months would have raised suspicions of him. “If the police were called that many times, you look at what the end game was,” he said. “Was there anything found? If nothing was found, that person needs to be counseled, or reeducated, or otherwise told you are not going to be allowed on the Neighborhood Watch.”
Zimmerman also called himself the “captain” of his neighborhood watch leading many to question whether it is some sort of militaristic organization, which might have emboldened Martin’s killer to use violence. “When you say ‘block captain’? To me that’s an administrative person, someone who puts together schedules,” Tutko clarified. “But certainly you’re not the person in charge, and no one will be following orders from this person.”
All of these factors point to the benefits of registering Neighborhood Watch groups, who receive training, vetting, and work intimately with police. “It comes down to [knowing] the person that’s out there. If you’re not partnering with a law enforcement agency, who vets these people? How do we know? We could be sitting talking in a meeting, talking about going on vacation, and our alarms and locks, and the person in the meeting, who is a member of the neighborhood watch, could be the person who is going to break into your house — and we don’t know that,” Tutko warned.
The tragedy of Trayvon Martin’s death at the hands of someone who claimed to be a Neighborhood Watch captain will not alter the structure of the organization. Yet, “Our condolences go out to the family, because this was not necessary,” Tutko said of the Trayvon Martin shooting.
“The only change will be to use this as an example of what not to do,” he confirmed.
“Neighborhood Watch — the way we teach it, and the way it has always been — is based on the premise that we don’t carry weapons, nor do we intervene in any incidences,” the leader continued. “Because what that does is escalate a situation and makes a volunteer another victim. We’ll use this sad event as a bad example, but we won’t be changing any literature or protocols.”
For Caldwell, Martin’s death might strengthen the resolve of Neighborhood Watch volunteers to do good.
“Does this put a blemish on Neighborhood Watch? At first I thought it might,” Caldwell concluded. “But the people that are truly trained, that are part of Neighborhood Watch, know that this is more the exception to the rule, than anything else,” she said of Martin’s shooting.
“And they know what the right program is, and what the wrong program is. This has made people stronger and more determined that they get people involved in the right way. They want to reinforce the philosophy of Neighborhood Watch.”
Follow Alexis Garrett Stodghill on Twitter at @lexisb