The premise behind Neighborhood Watch is simple.
“Neighbors working in conjunction with law enforcement are the eyes and ears of their community,” said Pat Sill, president of the Maryland Community Crime Prevention Institute, which trains law enforcement and community policing organizations.
“If they see something suspicious they report it,” she said of Neighborhood Watch volunteers. “They’re not to be anything more than eyes and ears.”
In the wake of the shooting death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in Florida, allegedly at the hands of a Neighborhood Watch volunteer, officials in Howard County may be taking another look at how community-policing organizations are operating.
“It always bears looking at when you have any incident,” said C. Vernon Gray, administrator of the Howard County Office of Human Rights. He spoke with County Executive Ken Ulman and Police Chief William McMahon in the wake of Martin’s death to revisit the operations of the local Neighborhood Watch programs.
Martin’s death has led to a surge of public criticism, much of it expressed on social media. According to the Sun-Sentinel, The Department of Justice, the FBI and the Florida State Attorney’s Office are all investigating the shooting.
George Zimmerman, a Neighborhood Watch volunteer, allegedly shot Martin on Feb. 26 as the teenager was returning to his father's house from a convenience store. Zimmerman has not been arrested or charged with any crime according to reports. Read comprehensive coverage of the incident and its impact on the Sun-Sentinel’s website.
In Howard County, Neighborhood Watch programs work “pretty nicely,” Gray said. “I know on my street … people don’t go out in a vigilante fashion. If they notice anything suspicious, they will call police or notify neighbors."
Vigilantism is one of the reasons Howard County Police Community Liaison Bonita Linkins said she does not support neighborhood “patrols,” in which residents take a more active role, patrolling neighborhoods instead of simply observing.
At a with residents of the Bethgate neighborhood, Linkins told those concerned about a rash of break-ins that patrols can lead to trouble. Once incident, she recalled, “turned into a vigilante-type circumstance … It turned into a physical assault situation.”
There are several key differences between Maryland and Florida laws, particularly Florida's “Stand Your Ground” self-defense law, which is being called into question by local lawmakers, according to the Christian Science Monitor. The law permits the use of deadly force if a person “reasonably believes” his or her life, or someone else’s life is threatened.
Maryland has no such law, though SB411 allows residents to defend themselves with force in their homes or places of business.
And firearms are difficult to come by in Maryland – it is up to local authorities to approve or deny an individual’s request for a permit although, according to the Baltimore Sun, a recent federal ruling may make it easier for residents to obtain firearms.
Neither Ulman nor Sill could say whether an individual with a concealed weapons permit is allowed to carry that weapon while participating in a Neighborhood Watch program, which is not administered by the police department.
“That’s something that I want to revisit and make sure that we are square on that,” Ulman said at a meeting Wednesday with the police chief's Citizen's Advisory Council.
“As far as weapons and that kind of thing, I don’t know that it’s anything that’s specifically ever talked about,” Sill said.
“It’s eyes and ears, simply that.”