Neighborhood watch programs have long been the eyes and ears of local law enforcement, keeping tabs on suspicious behavior. But the recent shooting death of an unarmed Florida teenager by a watch volunteer may incite debate over how to balance vigilance and action.
Recordings of a 911 call by George Zimmerman to police in Sanford, Fla., suggest he overstepped basic protocols set down by the National Sheriffs' Association's manual for such watch groups, according to law enforcement and security officials. Zimmerman shot and killed the 17-year-old in what he later said was an act of self-defense during a neighborhood watch patrol.
"Although Mr. Zimmerman apparently was not part of any official neighborhood watch organization, even if he had been, these folks don't have any more power than ordinary citizens," says Paul Butler, a law professor at George Washington University. "They are not law enforcement officials."
About 25,000 watch groups are registered with the sheriffs' association, which started its neighborhood watch program in 1972. Many other groups are registered with local law enforcement.
In a statement this week, the sheriffs' association referred to Zimmerman as a "self-appointed neighborhood watchman," and said it had no record that his community had ever officially registered a neighborhood watch. So it is unclear whether he would have been familiar with the NSA's guidelines.
'Firearms Are Definitely Out'
Most neighborhood watch programs across the country have functioned safely and helped reduce crime, according to a 2009 report by the U.S. Department of Justice. But there have been other cases of surveillance escalating into violence. For example, a man in Utah was shot dead in 2009 by the father of a teenage girl. The shooter apparently mistook the community watch member's questioning of his daughter for an incident of stalking.
Chris Tutko, who runs the National Sheriffs' Association's neighborhood watch group, says the manual his organization distributes clearly states that citizens should never take action on their observations.
But he says this message has been harder to get out lately because budget cuts to local law enforcement have forced some departments to curtail their support for watch groups.
"It used to be that departments had an officer assigned specifically to the local neighborhood watch program, but there's not much money for that anymore," Tutko says. He also points out that one of the problems with unsanctioned programs is that without police assistance and member screening, "you have no way of knowing if you're letting the bad guys in."
And for neighborhood watch groups, "firearms are definitely out," Tutko says.
Zimmerman had a permit to carry a concealed weapon. Florida's Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, whose department is charged with overseeing concealed weapons permits in Florida, said Tuesday that he could not revoke a permit issued to Zimmerman without pending criminal charges. Zimmerman so far has not been charged with a crime.
Florida is also among some two dozen states that have so-called Stand Your Ground laws that allow the use of deadly force if someone believes he is being threatened by deadly force.
S. David Bernstein, who holds a Ph.D. in forensic psychology and runs his own security consultancy, says Zimmerman's state of mind at the time of the alleged assault very likely contributed to the deadly incident. "This was a guy who was clearly hypervigilant," he notes. "It's reported that he'd made something like 50 911 calls to police in the previous year, many of them frivolous, and that should have been a concern."
Lost In Translation
Bernstein says "distancing language" used by Zimmerman on the audio of the original emergency services call to report what he deemed a suspicious person walking through his neighborhood should have been a red flag for police.
"That's language that someone uses to make a distinction between 'us' and 'them,' " Bernstein says. "So when Zimmerman says, 'This guy's up to no good. These a- -holes always get away' — that's distancing language."
Bernstein says the 911 audio of Zimmerman and the emergency services dispatcher often resembles a conversation between colleagues.
"The dispatcher asks: 'Do you want to meet with the officers when they get out there?' Zimmerman says, 'Yeah,' " Bernstein says. "This might have made him feel like he was part of a team. I think that's very possible."
The dispatcher also tries to dissuade Zimmerman from pursuing Martin, but Bernstein says he didn't do a very forceful job of it.
"He doesn't say 'Stop'; he says, 'OK, we don't need you to do that.' That's not strong enough," Bernstein says. "More importantly, the dispatcher doesn't follow up to make sure Zimmerman has stopped his pursuit."
'Suspicion Is Race-Based'
Butler, the law professor at George Washington University, disagrees that the dispatcher's admonition was overly vague.
"I think a reasonable person would have interpreted what the dispatcher said as 'stay in the car,' " he says.
Butler says the overarching issues in the case, which has sparked a national outcry, are likely to center on race and Florida's gun laws. Martin was black, and Zimmerman is Latino.
"What we have to understand is that often suspicion is race-based," he says. "In this case, there isn't a whole lot to go on for why Mr. Zimmerman would have focused on Trayvon — he was a kid walking back from the store with a bag of Skittles."
Butler says the bottom line is that Zimmerman was carrying a gun and appeared ready to use it.
"As long as that's allowed to go on, I think, unfortunately, we are going to see cases like this," he says. "That's not so much to do with neighborhood watch programs as it is about gun laws."