Neighborhood Watch Under Fire After Teen's Death

Mar 29, 2012
Originally published on March 29, 2012 8:09 pm

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

We begin this hour by exploring two questions that arise from the killing of Trayvon Martin. He's the 17-year-old shot by a neighborhood watch volunteer last month in Sanford, Florida. In a few minutes, we'll hear from two parents whose children were killed, and how they coped with the sudden media spotlight.

BLOCK: First, to the latest in Sanford. Newly released police video shows the shooter, George Zimmerman, on the night of last month's shooting. The video shows Zimmerman being led from a squad car, and walking into a station, with no visible signs of injuries. His lawyer says Zimmerman had his nose broken and head injured in a scuffle with Trayvon Martin.

SIEGEL: Authorities have not charged Zimmerman, and there are questions now about the neighborhood watch group he volunteered for.

NPR's Greg Allen reports on calls to regulate such groups.

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: This year marks the 40th anniversary of neighborhood watch. For 37 of those years, Miami-Dade County has been part of the program. Headquarters for the Citizens Crime Watch are in an office park near Miami's airport.

CARMEN CALDWELL: Hey, nice to meet you.

ALLEN: Hi, Carmen.

The executive director is an irrepressible, 30-year veteran of neighborhood watch programs, Carmen Caldwell. She got involved as a volunteer in the '80s. When she heard about the events in Sanford, Caldwell says her first reaction was, that's not how neighborhood watch operates. Caldwell says her office is adamant about the rules - and they're simple.

CALDWELL: No intervening, no carrying weapons, no patrolling the area - and your only job is to call the police when you see something suspicious.

ALLEN: Miami-Dade's neighborhood watch program is more closely supervised than many. Caldwell gets much of her funding from the county government, and works to register all her groups with the National Sheriff's Association. This week, at a city commission meeting attended by several hundred people in Sanford, congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee quoted from the sheriff's association guidelines for neighborhood watch programs.

REP. SHEILA JACKSON LEE: The purpose of the neighborhood watch program is to enable citizens to act as the eyes and ears within the community, and to alert law enforcement...

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERS AND APPLAUSE)

LEE: ...immediately, when suspicious activity has occurred.

ALLEN: That was supposed to be the case at the Retreat at Twin Lakes, the townhome community where George Zimmerman was neighborhood watch captain. In the homeowner's association newsletter, residents were urged to keep their eyes open and if they saw anything suspicious, to call the police. Although the events that led to Trayvon Martin's shooting are still not clear, it appears Zimmerman went far beyond that.

Congresswoman Lee says she plans to introduce a bill in Congress that would require some sort of mandatory certification for neighborhood watch groups. Chris Tutko, who coordinates neighborhood watch for the National Sheriff's Association, is skeptical that's the answer.

CHRIS TUTKO: It may be possible but again, it's going to be quite intensive. And there are just too many out there that we don't know about. I have 25,000 registered with me right now, and I would estimate it's probably five, six, seven times that amount.

ALLEN: Many neighborhood watch groups require that 30 or 40 percent of residents participate. It's not clear how many, besides Zimmerman, were active participants in Sanford. The homeowner's association newsletter urged residents to call him if they'd been victimized. The group did have a relationship with police, although they weren't registered with the National Sheriff's Association.

Ken Novak is an associate professor of criminal justice at the University of Missouri, Kansas City, who has studied neighborhood watch programs. He agrees that national certification probably won't accomplish much, but he thinks the Trayvon Martin shooting will have an impact on neighborhood watch.

KENNETH NOVAK: Local police departments will likely have to reassess how much they know about neighborhood watch within their city, and making sure that the expectations are communicated to those groups about not getting involved directly.

ALLEN: That appears already to be happening. In Lee County, Florida, this week, for example, the sheriff's office sent out a memo reminding volunteers that neighborhood watch is a no-contact activity.

Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.