NEIGHBORHOOD WATCH: How a Police Sponsored Program Killed Trayvon Martin
Richard Mario Procida, Esq.
Trayvon Martin died unnecessarily. The man who killed him: an armed want-a-be cop and captain of a Neighborhood Watch program. Perhaps motivated by prejudice, George Zimmerman was a deluded kook armed with a 9mm semi-automatic handgun and an undeserved sense of authority. He should have never been on the streets.
Neighborhood Watch programs were created in 1960 in response the rape and murder of Kitty Genovese in Queens, New York. People were outraged after a dozen witnesses did nothing to save the girl or apprehend her killer. In the 1970s, the National Sheriff’s Association began a concerted effort to revive the program nationwide. These programs are run by local community groups with the support of local sheriff and police departments.
Neighborhood Watch members are told to look out for suspicious persons and to call police to report suspicious activity. Unfortunately, the criteria for suspicious activity are often overly broad. A stranger walking down the street is considered suspicious. Police told Twin Lakes community Neighborhood Watch members it was ok to identify strangers and to follow them at a safe distance. At the same time, the police didn’t offer any instructions regarding Watch members carrying firearms.
The volunteer program coordinator for the Sanford Police Department, Wendy Dorival, worked with the Twin Lakes Neighborhood Watch. She said the police viewed Neighborhood Watch members as “the eyes and ears of the community”. When asked whether a person walking in rain between houses was suspicious, Dorival said yes and added that she encourages neighbors to know who “doesn't belong” in the community. She should have known that minorities are more likely to be viewed as persons who don’t belong.
People walking down the street are engaged in normal everyday behavior. Walking down the street is legal. It is not criminal or suspicious. To the extent that Neighborhood Watch programs encourage paranoia and extreme behavior by encouraging Watch members to target pedestrians, they make our communities more dangerous.
Neighborhood Watch programs are supposed to make our communities safer, but the Twin Lakes Neighborhood Watch program made Zimmerman’s community more dangerous. It encouraged a deluded kook to run around his neighborhood chasing strangers with a loaded handgun in his holster.
Neighborhood Watch programs attract good people; but they also attract snoops, kooks, and bullies. Zimmerman helped start the Neighborhood Watch program. He began enforcing parking rules in the community and later took charge of recruiting block captains.
The former criminal justice student had a pattern of calling authorities about criminal activities and safety issues. Neighbors in his community had complained to the sheriff about his increasingly aggressive behavior. He would approach people in the neighborhood and even go to their homes. So why didn’t the Sanford Police Department get the hint?
Wendy Dorival, the Sanford Police Department Program Coordinator, testified that she viewed Zimmerman as a professional person who wanted to make a positive change in his community. She even tried to recruit him to a citizens patrol program. But what Zimmerman was really doing was harassing people on the streets.
If there was no Neighborhood Watch program, there would be no George Zimmerman! There may be some good that comes out of these programs. They may make people feel more secure. The programs, however, are not without fault. That sense of security may be a false one. They need to be reined in.
Local police agencies set guidelines for their Neighborhood Watches. Groups vary greatly in their scope, function, level of activity, and training. In response to the Trayvon Martin incident, Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) has began drafting a bill that would require neighborhood watch groups to be certified and limit their duties. Given the bad advice given the Twin Lakes Neighborhood Watch program, and the way the police tended to use these untrained volunteers for surveillance rather than for simply reporting crimes, limiting these programs is a good idea.
Neighborhood Watch Programs should not conduct surveillance for local police. Members should report only crimes or potential crimes. The purpose of Neighborhood Watch programs is to encourage people to report crime. It’s not a training program for want-a-be cops. It should not allow members to follow innocent people, and Watch members should never be armed.
Neighborhood Watch programs can create tension in a communities. Minorities may be targeted. Guests in the neighborhood are put at risk. People with hidden prejudices who are unaccountable and not vetted are more likely to make mistakes and behave aggressively.
It’s time to rein in Neighborhood Watch programs nationwide. It doesn’t matter how you view the Zimmerman verdict. Zimmerman may have acted with some racial animus, but the State couldn’t prove that he acted with “ill will or hatred”, a necessary element of murder.
What Zimmerman did was negligent. It’s unsurprising that the City overreached by pursuing a second degree murder theory rather than a negligence theory such as manslaughter or assault. A negligence theory could implicate the city and its misuse of the Twin Lakes Neighborhood watch program. If Zimmerman acted negligently, he did so while performing his neighborhood watch duties. On the other hand, a murder conviction would tend to absolve the City from responsibility.
The police gave the Twin Lakes Neighborhood Watch bad advice. They used the Neighborhood Watch for recognizance and law enforcement. The police agreed to allow members to enforce parking rules, encouraged them to report strangers, allowed them to follow unidentified pedestrians, and failed to prohibit them from carrying firearms. This empowered Zimmerman to follow people, chase them down, and ultimately kill one of them. The police sponsored Twin Lakes Neighborhood Watch program killed Trayvon Martin.