Sanford Police Chief Cecil Smith announced this week that the city’s neighborhood watch program has been revamped and has now banned neighborhood watch members from carrying guns, local media reports.
The changes come partly in wake of the shooting death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin and subsequent trial in which George Zimmerman, the neighborhood watch volunteer who shot Martin, was acquitted of murder. While some say that Zimmerman, who is part Hispanic and part white, racially profiled the black teen, then pursued, confronted and killed him, the defense claims that the shooting was in self-defense, spawned by Martin physically attacking Zimmerman.
Opinions on the shooting – and the trial – remain a highly debated and heated topic, just as the program’s decision to ban firearms likely will be.
The new rules and regulations of the neighborhood watch program, which will be announced at a community meeting next Tuesday, include prohibiting volunteers from pursuing any individual who they deem suspicious.
“In this program, it is clearly stated that you will not pursue an individual,” Smith told reporters. “In this new program, it clearly indicates that you will not carry a firearm when performing your duties as a neighborhood watch captain or participant.”
According to the Sanford Police Department spokeswoman Shannon Cordingly, some of the reasons for the program changes were first, to avoid a recurrence of the events which led to the shooting death of Martin and secondly in an effort to revive the now tainted image of the neighborhood watch program.
“People in the community are nervous to join a group that was tarnished in the media and got a bad image with everything that happened. We really want to put those fears to rest and get the community going on the program,” Cordingly explained.
Martin’s death contributed to a widespread misunderstanding of not only self-defense and stand your ground laws, but the purpose of neighborhood watch programs.
“I’m disappointed that people are trying to put blame onto the program when it’s not the program’s fault,” Wendy Dorival, former volunteer coordinator for the Sanford Police Department told the Orlando Sentinel a month after the shooting. “Neighborhood watch is not what took his life away,” she added.
Nonetheless, the previous neighborhood watch program, which Zimmerman helped to organize in 2011, was in dire need of reformation, according to Smith.
“There was really no accountability. There was no true recognition. There were concerns with regards to training. There were concerns with how the program was being run,” he said. “We put a cease to the neighborhood watch program, essentially, in the manner it was in before, and what we’re doing now is really, truly revamping the entire program, starting from scratch.”
Along with prohibiting participants from carrying firearms or pursuing suspicious individuals, the program has made other changes as well. The new rules, which are laid out in a newly revised handbook, will also require that members undergo training, register with local law enforcement and regularly check-in and report back to the police department. In addition, all members must now undergo a background check in order to participate in the program, which will be overseen by the city’s new full-time three-officer community relations unit.
Smith said that he’s excited about the new changes to the program and encourages residents to attend next week’s meeting to voice their questions, comments and concerns.
Cordingly explained that anyone who violates the new rules, although they will not be charged with a crime, will possibly be removed from the program.
“Neighborhood watch is a very simple organization. It’s about neighbors helping neighbors, talking to neighbors about ways to make their neighborhood safe. That’s it,” Smith said. “Again, do I think I’m going to make every person happy about our requirements that you don’t be armed? I’m not going to make everyone happy, but not everyone has to be part of the program.”