Home owners' associations with neighborhood watch progams will likely re-examine their operations in the aftermath of George Zimmerman's acquittal, experts say.
The family of Trayvon Martin, the 17-year-old shot dead by Zimmerman, already has reached a reported seven-figure settlement with the homeowners association in the gated Florida community where Zimmerman lived. The payment, made before Zimmerman was acquitted, shows that civil liability doesn’t depend on proving a volunteer patrol member broke the law.
“I think a lot of associations that have neighborhood watch programs will now pay close attention to see if they have closely tailored policies and procedures,” said Miami-based attorney Roberto Blanch, who specializes in representing community associations. “I also think they will be more cautious about endorsing them.”
Zimmerman was accused of contributing to what became a deadly situation by reporting Martin was behaving suspiciously, then following him, at least for a short time, despite a dispatcher telling him, “We don’t need you to do that.”
Even if Zimmerman's Twin Lakes homeowners association had not officially sanctioned his efforts as a volunteer watch leader, the Martin family’s attorney was quick to note the association endorsed Zimmerman in a newsletter as the go-to person for residents who had been the victims of crime.
“It was almost like setting them up with a local guard,” Blanch said. “I would embrace a well-operated neighborhood watch program, but I wouldn’t go on record creating the appearance that it is a branch of the association. It should be an independent body acting on its own.”
Many neighborhood watch groups say they’ve always encouraged members to simply observe and report, serving as extra eyes and ears for the police.
“The neighborhood watch program volunteers are encouraged to report suspicious behavior,” Michelle Boykins, of the National Crime Prevention Council, told FoxNews.com. “We have taught them to reinforce the fact that they are not law enforcement.
Watch groups don’t need to change their rules, they just need to reinforce them, said Sgt. Denise Nestor, of the Pinellas County, Fla., Sheriff's Office.
“We have never endorsed people to patrol to the point where they are stopping people and confronting people,” she said. “They are supposed to call suspicious activity in right away. If you are going to be a witness, do so from a safe distance.”
However, Curtis Sliwa, founder and president of the Guardian Angels watch group and a New York radio personality, said his organization has no plans for changing the guidelines by which his members operate based on the Zimmerman trial.
“What needs to be understood in this is that he was out there solo on patrol,” Sliwa told FoxNews.com.“I have never heard of somebody just patrolling on their own. I don’t think the guidelines require any readjustment on anybody’s part.He was a guy on his own mission.That is what immediately suggests to me that he was a one-man warrior.”
Sliwa added that Guardian Angels do not carry weapons, are very identifiable in their red uniforms and defer to law enforcement without question.
Whatever the case, neighborhood watch groups have proven to be a valuable law enforcement tool , according to John Thompson, deputy executive director of the National Sheriff’s Association, which works with neighborhood watch groups around the country.
“We have 28,000 registered neighborhood watches,” Thompson said. “We stand by what we do. Things go wrong in every profession. I think neighborhood watch is going to stand as what it was built on.”