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Neighborhood watch groups ponder use of guns after Zimmerman trial

On a recent afternoon, Kent Holder drove his Ford pickup, emblazoned with “Citizens’ Patrol” magnetic decals, through this leafy enclave west of Tacoma, Wash., recalling when he learned that George Zimmerman had shot and killed an unarmed teenager — and was a neighborhood watch volunteer.

“I thought, ‘Boy, did he ever screw up,’ ” said Holder, 74, a retired firefighter and five-year neighborhood patrol veteran.

In Holder’s view, Zimmerman violated two basic tenets of the watch program: Never confront a person you perceive to be suspicious, and never carry a weapon while on duty.

On July 13, a jury in Sanford, Fla., acquitted Zimmerman of second-degree murder and manslaughter charges in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, 17. The case has focused news attention on civilian patrols.

Zimmerman, 29, who is white and Hispanic, spotted Martin, who was black, as the unarmed teenager walked to the home of his father’s fiancee from a ­convenience store. Zimmerman thought Martin looked suspicious and called the police. The two had a confrontation, and Martin was killed.

The National Sheriffs’ Association’s neighborhood watch program was established in 1972 to combat a spike in suburban and rural burglaries.

It was designed to empower civilians to act as “the eyes and ears of law enforcement” without taking matters into their own hands, said John Thompson, who directs the initiative. The association’s 37-page manual says that patrol members “shall not carry weapons.”

While the group is seen as an authority, fewer than one-third of the estimated 90,000 neighborhood watch groups nationwide have registered with it, said Thompson. Zimmerman’s watch group was not among those registered, he said.

“I could show you 50 groups with 50 different sets of rules,” Thompson said.

During the trial, Wendy Dorival, a civilian with the Sanford Police Department, testified that she trained Zimmerman on neighborhood watch protocol, advising him to avoid initiating confrontations. It was not clear whether she counseled him on whether to carry a gun.

Barring guns from civilian patrols is a legal gray area since most U.S. citizens have the right to bear arms, said Kenneth Novak, a criminologist at the University of Missouri at Kansas City who has studied watch programs.

Local watch groups, as private entities, are on relatively firm legal ground in setting no-
weapons policies for their members, Novak said, but law enforcement agencies mandating such rules could run the risk of exceeding their authority.

“People participating in neighborhood watch enjoy all the legal protections under the Constitution, as well as state and federal law,” he said. “That can include carrying a weapon.”

Jeffrey Dehan, a sergeant who advises neighborhood watch groups as part of his duties with the Thurston County Sheriff’s Office in Washington state, says it is not their role to offer guidance on whether members should carry a weapon.

“We don’t advocate ‘should or shouldn’t,’ ” he said.

Carmen Caldwell, the executive director of Citizens’ Crime Watch of Miami-Dade in Florida, said that in the wake of the Zimmerman case, some trainers were considering new safeguards, which could include background checks on prospective members and teaching about racial profiling.

Holder, the former firefighter from Washington, said fallout from the Martin shooting has been minimal. “There was concern that we would’ve had something negative from it,” he said. “But nobody has ever said, ‘You guys shouldn’t be out here.’ They love us. They love having us.”

— Reuters


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