The fatal shooting in Sanford, Fla. of a black teen by a neighborhood watch volunteer has raised questions about race and about that state’s self-defense law. Either or both of those topics may be pertinent to the specific question of possible criminal charges. But for most of us who do not live in or near Sanford, Fla., the pertinent takeaway concerns the role, manner and oversight of neighborhood watch programs and their volunteers.
There is no dispute that Trayvon Martin, 17, was shot to death by George Zimmerman, a civilian resident of Sanford, Feb. 26. Zimmerman, who has been involved in that community’s neighborhood watch, told authorities he followed Martin after becoming suspicious of the teen’s presence, and he says Martin attacked him. That assertion is in dispute, and Zimmerman’s ability to form valid judgments regarding the threat, if any, posed by the teen is obviously central to the matter. It is known that Zimmerman had been in contact with Sanford police during the events that led up to the shooting of Martin, who was unarmed and was returning from a trip to a convenience mart.
Neighborhood watch programs are common around the country, including here in Manhattan, where the duties of one Riley County Police Department officer include being a liaison to such volunteers. They were conceived years ago largely out of a desire by some residents to supplement security in neighborhoods, it being obvious that no level of police presence could be as alert as an alert citizenry. That premise is the underlying tenet behind the notation of “a well-regulated militia.”
At the same time, it is not feasible for police to train neighborhood watch personnel — particularly in matters involving threat assessment and judgment — to a level approximately equal to that of a sworn officer. Even if they tried, the result would be greatly uneven since neighborhood watch programs rise or fall based on the varying levels of commitment of the citizens within the individual neighborhoods. It’s probably impossible to know how many active “neighborhood watch” participants there actually are in Riley County today, although our sense is that the answer is “not many.”.
One gets the sense that George Zimmerman was a fully committed neighborhood watch participant.
Individual residents have an unquestioned right to defend their property against real threats. At the same time, they have a responsibility to defend the judgments leading them to the conclusion that they are threatened. If those individuals, acting entirely on their own, make bad judgments, they can be held responsible by the law for the consequences of the actions that result. But if they are acting in a quasi-official capacity, such as part of a neighborhood watch program, then it behooves local officials to make sure that local governments are not drawn into ill-advised consequences by those citizens’ bad judgments.