Suburban Maryland community watch groups are reviewing current practices for neighborhood patrols in the wake of the fatal shooting of an unarmed teen in Florida at the hands of a volunteer neighborhood watch captain.
In Sanford, Fla., Trayvon Martin, 17, was shot and killed Feb. 26 by neighborhood watch captain George Zimmerman, 28, who became involved in a confrontation with Martin after reporting to police he saw Martin acting suspiciously.
Experts say Zimmerman’s watch group could face a civil lawsuit about whether he was properly trained for the patrols and whether he was permitted to carry a gun on patrols.
“Conceivably, if there was a victim in one of these situations, like with Trayvon Martin, a victim or a victim’s family may say that it wasn’t just the neighborhood watch person who did something wrong, but try to prove the association didn’t want to supervise or properly train this person,” said Roger Winston, a Bethesda-based attorney with experience handling homeowners association cases. “You may be able to create a barrier between the association by hiring a private security company.”
The Maryland Homeowners’ Association, a statewide, nonprofit organization for protecting rights of homeowners, is notifying area associations on how to effectively run watch programs in light of the Zimmerman case.
Jeanne Ketley, MHA’s president, said she continues to advise patrolling in groups, calling the police when seeing suspicious activity and posting street signs to notify people of the program. She said actual training and patrolling is at each watch group’s discretion.
“We tell groups never to confront anybody and to go out in groups of two or three so that there are always witnesses and so you’re verified and protected,” she said, noting that volunteers are specifically advised against carrying weapons. “And why would you take a weapon? If you’re representing a homeowners association or condominium association, you don’t want to let anyone out there with a weapon.”
In Maryland, a permit is required to carry a handgun, though the final decision to grant a permit is at the discretion of Maryland State Police, which is based on finding "good and substantial reason," said Greg Shipley, a police force spokesman. Maryland’s gun laws have recently come under review in federal court but Shipley said state police will not change its procedure until the courts reach a conclusion.
In Florida, a permit is also required to carry a handgun, though the permits are granted based on criteria of the law such as age, residency and background check and not at the discretion of a local jurisdiction, according to the Florida legislature. Florida has also a “Stand Your Ground” law, which allows a person to use deadly force when they have a reasonable fear of imminent peril or death.
Winston said community watch groups may benefit from hiring a private security company, which takes the liability off their organization, but said volunteer groups should avoid confrontations.
”If they see suspicious activity, contact the police and let them know what’s going on. Give them as much detail as possible, but leave it to law enforcement to enforce,” he said. “There’s also the question of training whoever is doing the job. If you have a private security company, the private company is going to follow a similar type of procedure. ... They’re not law-enforcement agents, either.”
James Fisher, director of the Citizen Action Patrol, a city watch group in District Heights, said the group has been discussing the shooting case and is reinforcing practices already in place, such as not making contact with a suspicious person.
“What we do is observe and report. We do not contact or trail or pursue a person,” he said, referring to claims that Zimmerman followed the teen after being told not to during a 911 call he reportedly made.
Given that most in the 20-member group are elderly volunteers, patrols in the roughly 5,000-resident city are conducted in groups about once per month, Fisher said, and members are not to carry weapons. Fisher said new members are briefed on what to observe, who to report to and how to fill out observation sheets. Prior to conducting formal patrols, new members are accompanied by veterans on initial patrols.
Other Prince George’s County watch groups are led or coordinated by community police officers to make sure they are not overstepping their bounds, but advice to volunteers varies by department.
In Laurel, police department Cpl. James Beasock said the watch groups have been discussing the Florida incident and will continue to alert residents of the dangers of pursuing “suspicious” people, a caution that was in place before the Martin shooting occurred.
“If you were to tell me, ‘Hey there’s a guy outside that looks suspicious, I’m going to follow him,’ you would have to be crazy,” Beasock said.
Cheverly Police Chief Buddy Robshaw, who heads the Cheverly Police and Citizens Together watch program, said pursuit of suspicious persons can be done in a safe manner but he said it is rarely, if ever, necessary because his department’s average response time is less than a minute.
“You shouldn’t have an obligation to stop following somebody,” Robshaw said, adding that everyone in the watch program goes through a background check and is taught what is and is not typical suspicious behavior before being issued a handheld radio that connects directly to the patrolling officer on duty.
Those in charge of neighborhood watches in Montgomery Village in Montgomery County said in order to avoid direct confrontation, they don’t have volunteer neighborhood patrols.
Sharon Cranford, secretary of the Whetstone Homes Corp.’s board of directors and a member of the neighborhood watch, said her group keeps the community safe not with patrols, but with phone calls and pamphlets.
The Whetstone neighborhood watch is one of the most prolific in Montgomery Village, with 40 block captains checking on 447 homes. The watch, Cranford said, spends most of its time talking to homeowners about safety precautions, such as locking doors and windows as well as keeping valuables out of their cars. She said residents are taught to call police to report anything suspicious and to never confront anyone.
Bob Hydorn, president of the nonprofit Montgomery Village Foundation, which oversees the home corporations and associations that make up the village, said Martin’s shooting has not elicited a reaction from his group because Whetstone’s practices are widespread among neighborhood watches. To allay security fears over crime in parks, the village contracted the security group American Protective Service to patrol its parks and community centers. The foundation spends $100,000 each year on this service, according to foundation Executive Vice President Dave Humpton.
Frederick County’s Worman’s Mill development has a security committee instead of a neighborhood watch, according to Patty Vasco, the general manager of the Worman’s Mill Community Conservancy, a group similar to a homeowners association. Like Montgomery Village, she said the committee doesn’t patrol, but rather reports suspicious activity.
“We instruct them to call the police and to inform our security committee, so they have record of it,” she said.
The shooting inspired a panel discussion, held Saturday at the Bernard Brown Community Center in Frederick.
One panelist, Watu Mwarima, a community activist associated with the African People Socialist Party, said while the Martin’s shooting isn’t tied to any similar events in Frederick, he’s concerned with what he says are similar issues occurring nationwide. Another panelist, Willie Mahone, said “we hope to relate it to something local ... and come forward with some concrete suggestions as to things we can do to improve our community.”