Neighborhood watch groups in the cross hairs

After the Trayvon Martin killing, neighborhood watch groups have come under renewed scrutiny

Published June 14, 2012 3:05PM (EDT)


This article originally appeared on The Crime Report, the nation's largest criminal justice news source.

The fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed teenager, by George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch coordinator in Sanford, Fla., on Feb. 26, triggered a national debate about racial profiling and gun control — and about “Stand Your Ground” laws in Florida and other states that permit civilians to defend themselves if they feel threatened.

The Crime ReportBut one aspect of the shooting has received comparatively little attention: the public safety role played by civilian volunteer groups.

From neighborhood watch groups to uniformed auxiliary police, these organizations act as the “eyes and ears” of police departments in hundreds of U.S. communities. And they are often a welcome and significant reinforcement to public safety in an era of overstretched municipal budgets.

But an investigation by the Crime Report shows that the standards and procedures that govern the activities of such civilian police volunteers are ambiguous and uneven across the country.

These unpaid civilians provide a visual presence that supplements regular police units — sometimes complete with uniforms, badges and marked vehicles that strongly resemble squad cars.

In other communities, they operate as “shadow police” — but without proper training in police procedures. In extreme cases, they are criticized for acting as vigilantes.

Most law enforcement professionals consider community volunteers a key tool in crime-fighting strategies.  However, many law enforcement agencies in smaller towns and cities have minimal funds available for training civilian volunteers.

And when such volunteers overstep their “eyes and ears” roles, they create tension with the communities they serve, and with the police departments they supplement.

The specter of armed and untrained civilians enforcing the law fans the kind of anxieties that surfaced following the Martin killing.

Although Zimmerman was not trained in firearms or police procedures, he was able to obtain a firearm permit under the relatively lax standards operating in Florida—as in many other states. He has since been charged with second-degree murder and is currently awaiting trial.

In other incidents with less-tragic results, confusion over the proper role of civilians working with police can destroy years of hard work in building police-community relationships.

Stepped-Up Oversight

Some jurisdictions had already taken measures to step up oversight of their civilian auxiliaries before the Trayvon Martin incident.

Earlier this year, Illinois enacted a rule requiring members of auxiliary police forces to  complete the same mandatory 400 hours of basic law enforcement training that full-time officers receive.  The state was reportedly worried about potential lawsuits arising from the actions of untrained volunteers.

But the cost of training auxiliary members up to the new standards forced the Illinois city of Milan, with a population of just over 5,000, to end its auxiliary program after a 42-year partnership.

“It’s a huge loss for us, manpower-wise, during major functions when they come to ride with full-time officers and assist in those duties too,” Milan Police Capt. Shawn Johnson said.

Last year, in Borough Park Brooklyn, the Shomrim Patrol, a long-standing neighborhood watch group working with the ultra-orthodox Jewish community, triggered a different kind of concern.

When 8-year-old Leiby Kletzky was kidnapped and molested a few blocks from his home, his anxious parents notified the Shomrim, who sent out a search team. The New York Police Department (NYPD) wasn’t notified that he was missing for at least two hours. The boy was later found murdered.

The accused killer later told police that he kept the boy in his apartment for several hours before spiriting him to a house outside the city, where the youngster’s body was found.

While NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly praised the Shomrim for mobilizing quickly to search for the young boy, others in the department said earlier  involvement by law enforcement professionals might have saved the boy’s life.

The delay in notifying police was not unusual.  Many tight-knit communities (the Amish, for example) prefer to keep authorities at arms’ length, sometimes to avoid having their problems exposed to wider public view, and sometimes for theological reasons.

EDITORS NOTE: for a fuller account of the Kletzky case, the Shomrim, and similar civilian watch groups in religious communities please see TCR story “Keeping the Faith.”

But the approach can also foster abuses.

An Assault in Baltimore

On May 3, a Baltimore judge convicted Eliyahu Werdesheim, a member of a neighborhood watch group in an Ultra-Orthodox Jewish neighborhood, of false imprisonment and second-degree assault.

The case arose after Werdesheim, 24, and his brother Avi, 22, responding to a report of a suspicious person, beat up a 16-year-old youth and pinioned him to the sidewalk.

The brothers, members of the Shomrim, claimed they acted in self-defense, when the teen attacked them with a nail-riddled board that he ripped from a crate. The brothers had chosen to have a bench trial, claiming they would not receive a fair verdict from a jury because of the publicity surrounding the Trayvon Martin case.

But their self-defense claim was rejected by the judge. Werdesheim, who faces up to 10 years on the assault count, is slated to be sentenced in June. (His brother Avi was acquitted.)

These cases have raised questions about the training civilian watch members receive and their required roles while on patrol.

In particular, they highlight the fact that the operating procedures and regulations governing what these volunteers can and can’t do are at the discretion of local police departments.

Defining the roles and status of even uniformed auxiliary units continues to be a source of debate.

The NYPD Auxiliaries

The 4,500 members of the NYPD auxiliary unit represent one of the country’s largest models of civilian-police cooperation. They receive over 50 hours of training and wear the same uniforms as regular officers — providing a visible deterrent to crime in many tough neighborhoods.

Equipped with batons, bulletproof vests and radios, they are assigned to the same areas as regular cops, from patrol precincts to housing and transit units. But they have no powers of arrest beyond those possessed by private citizens.

According to the NY Penal Law 35.34(4), any private citizen can detain a person who has committed a felony in his or her presence and the person witnessing the act has “reasonable belief” that an offense is being committed.

These arrests are rare because in cases where the person detained is not convicted, the detaining civilian can be sued for false imprisonment or assault in some cases.

The only observable difference between them and regular cops is that they don’t carry firearms.  A shield and the word “auxiliary” in small letters over the NYPD arm patch identifies their status.

Supporters say their effectiveness rests on the ability to provide a visible public safety presence in a city with over 8 million residents — at a time when the NYPD faces persistent calls to do more with less.

Current proposals keep the NYPD’s $4 billion-plus budget in 2013 relatively unchanged from this year, despite increased pressures caused by overtime pay, retirements and a depleting uniformed force.  At its peak in 2000, the NYPD’s head count was over 40,000 members.  In 2012, the force is down 15 percent, at just over 34,000 officers.

Against this background, NYPD’s auxiliary force is shortly to become even more ubiquitous.

Under a new plan, the city’s 100 auxiliary patrol cars, which were painted dark blue with white decal lettering, will be redesigned to look like regular patrol cars—white with blue decal lettering.

Combined with a planned makeover of the NYPD’s 330 traffic vehicles, driven by civilian traffic enforcement agents, the design change will make it seem as if the NYPD’s current fleet of 2,500 cars has increased by 17 percent.

Such “smoke and mirrors” tactics also raise tough questions.

Will the higher profile of auxiliaries put them in harm’s way?  In 2007, two uniformed auxiliaries — Eugene Marshalik, 19, and Nicholas Pekearo, 28 — were gunned down in Greenwich Village.

They were killed by David Garvin, 42, whom they were pursuing after he shot and killed a restaurant employee named Alfredo Romero.

A year after the shooting, Marshalik’s parents told the NY Daily News that patrolling New York City streets in a uniform with only a baton and radio is dangerous.

“He was still under age,” Marshalik’s father, Boris, said in 2008.  “[Yet] At the same time they dress him in police uniforms. They’re not police officers.  They’re not peace officers.”

As preparations begin for redesigning auxiliary vehicles, some NYPD officers share the same anxieties.

“At least when the cars were dark blue, people could recognize the difference in the auxiliary members,” an NYPD source who wished to remain anonymous because of his role in the department told the Crime Report.

“You have to realize that some people won’t recognize the difference now, and some of those people who don’t know the difference could act out against the unarmed auxiliaries in an attempt to flee.”

Nevertheless, the auxiliaries themselves argue the patrol car change is just one of the steps that needs to be taken to increase both their safety and their value as crime deterrents.

“It’s definitely an advantage to look like a cop,” says Glenn Kearney, president of the New York State Association of Auxiliary Police (NYSAAP) a nonprofit organization with over 700 members. ,

The 2007 Greenwich Village shooting, he says, underlines the point.

“When [the shooter] first encountered [Marshalik and Pekearo], he thought they were police [and] he ran, thinking they were going after him,” Kearney, a 35-year veteran of the Nassau County Auxiliary Police Unit, told the Crime Report.

“It wasn’t until he realized they weren’t shooting at him that he noticed they didn’t have guns.”

The lesson, according to Kearney, is that auxiliaries should be allowed to carry guns following training in the proper use of force.

“I happen to believe that if somebody [who already has a gun permit] is trained to use a firearm by the police department, auxiliaries and any other officer they are working with are safer,” Kearney said.

Kearney conceded that the municipality “has to feel comfortable with that position.”

Kearney is also leading efforts to upgrade auxiliaries’ status in other ways. He is supporting a state bill to give volunteer units the title and benefits of “peace officers,” which would entitled them to benefits such as disability.

In support of his position, Kearney cites legal precedents that define auxiliaries as “fellow officers” in the eyes of the state when they supplement the work of regular police.

“It is imperative that auxiliaries have the same statutory protections of being ‘peace officers’ while on duty that other uniformed services have,” Kearney says.

That position, however, puts the NYSAAP in conflict with police unions in some New York jurisdictions who argue that increased use of auxiliaries reduces overtime pay for their members.

Crowd Control and Parking

Other big cities and small towns use “special” or “reserve” civilian police officers.  These volunteers, like the NYPD auxiliaries, go through backgrounds checks and are mandated to complete weeks of training.  The special or reserve officers are placed into categories or levels based on their completed training hours.

Also used as a visible deterrent, these officers take on lower-level police duties, allowing regular officers the availability to combat more serious police matters.

Los Angeles assigns separate levels to reserve officers. According to the LAPD website, “Level I” status  requires 340 hours of professional classroom instruction, while “Level II” reserves receive 250 hours. Along with the classroom hours, they also are required to take approximately 72 hours of self-defense training,

“At my division, we have a reserve officer [who] is a doctor, another reserve officer works on systems information and so on,” Officer Luiz Davila, a four-year veteran of the LAPD, told the Crime Report.

“I see them primarily on the weekends, [and] although most of their work seems to be focused on smaller issues, I can say that it allows me to focus on the more serious work.”

The Pompton Lakes, N.J., Police Department is another agency that uses levels effectively as a method of oversight over civilian volunteers.

Steve Sieford, a retired lieutenant and 30-year-veteran of the Pompton Lakes PD, says Special Police Officers are given assignments that allow the department to use its regular officers more “effectively.”

“We have two classes here and [their] duties could range from parking violations, crowd control, and traffic control,” Sieford told the Crime Report. “Class II officers are able to carry a gun once they’re finished with all their training requirements, [but] even though they are able to carry [guns], they tend to leave the violent crimes in the hands of the regular cops.”

Nationwide vs. Local Standards

Because of the recent cases in Sanford and Baltimore, some feel that nationwide standards should be implemented for neighborhood watch groups.

Texas Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee is drafting a bill that would require a mandatory certification for neighborhood watch groups. The bill would limit the duties of neighborhood watch programs to enabling “citizens to act as the eyes and ears within the community, and to alert law enforcement immediately when suspicious activity has occurred.”

Nevertheless, Chris Tutko, coordinator of neighborhood watch groups for the National Sheriffs Association, says such a proposal is unworkable.

“There are just too many watch groups out there that we don’t know about,” he told National Public Radio.  “I have 25,000 registered with me right now, and I would estimate it’s probably five, six, seven times that amount.”

According to Robert McCrie, professor of security management at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City, standards for neighborhood watches “are best left to the state or local community.”

“This is not an issue for national action, any more than federalized standards for local police training,” he told the Crime Report.  “Other arrangements can accomplish the same thing and be more appropriate to the community.”

Neighborhood or community patrol groups could deter citizens who are prone to aggressive behavior from joining by requiring background checks on applicants to be run by local police departments.  These checks are already required of auxiliaries and reserve police, and McCrie says neighborhood watch groups should receive similar attention.

“We run background checks on employees that handle money and anyone working with kids, so it only makes sense to run them on community members who are going to be actively involved with patrolling their neighborhoods,” McCrie said.

Background checks might have led local authorities to the conclusion that George Zimmerman shouldn’t have been on a neighborhood watch group, McCrie added.  (Zimmerman was previously arrested for domestic violence, and resisting an officer with violence — a felony charge.)

But he conceded that even a background check can miss crucial details that suggest an applicant may have behavioral issues.

Zimmerman reportedly made at least 46 calls to 911, peppering police with information about anything he considered suspicious behavior in his 260-unit gated community — even trucks driving slowly.

There are also marked differences in local watch groups. The National Sheriffs Association recommends specific rules and regulations, but it is up to local authorities to set guidelines for neighborhood watch groups.

That has resulted in disturbingly wide variations across the country, ranging from aggressive vigilante-type organizations that operate with little oversight  from local authorities, to stay-at-home volunteers who merely phone police with reports of suspicious behavior.

Jeffery McGowen, president of the Texas Crime Prevention Association, reports being contacted by neighborhood watch groups around his state for guidance following the Martin shooting.

He told them to “continue to do what you’re doing, being our eyes and ears.”

“We don’t want them [neighborhood watch groups] in the public so that something that happened in Florida won’t happen here,” McGowen said.

Eyes and Ears

Acting as the “eyes and ears” of local police is something that every manual for watch groups advocates. Even though there have been a handful of bad incidents, volunteers don’t want the reputation of their efforts to be tarnished.

According to the Neighborhood Watch Manual’s Citizen Patrol Procedures, published by the National Sheriffs Association, patrol members should not carry guns.  The manual also recommends that at least two members should patrol together, and that they should never confront anyone.

Reports after the Florida shooting suggested that Zimmerman ignored instructions from 911 operators not to follow Martin and to wait for authorities to arrive.

Neighborhood Watch volunteers in Sanford, where the Martin shooting took place, are told “what the rules and responsibilities are,” Wendy Dorival, the volunteer coordinator for the Sanford Police Department, told the New York Times

Volunteers are supposed to be a community’s “eyes and ears, not vigilantes,” and they “are not supposed to confront anyone,” she added.

Some local authorities hope that the incident in Florida does not deter citizens from volunteering.

“The ones I have worked with have been great,” the LAPD’s Davila said.  “I’m glad to have them.”

But the publicity about the Martin case could reduce civilians’ interest in joining such groups — and adversely affect the kind of community partnerships and connections that are considered important to modern policing strategies.

That would be an unfortunate byproduct of the Martin tragedy, according to McCrie.

“Many neighborhood watches [already] have a hard time obtaining sufficient volunteers for this rather thankless activity,” said McCrie.  “Increasing standards without providing incentives would decrease the volunteer pool.”

John Sodaro is the Spring News Intern for the Crime Report. A former NYPD officer, he is currently a student at John Jay College. He welcomes comments from readers.

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