ORLANDO, Florida (Reuters) - The Florida city where neighborhood watch leader George Zimmerman shot and killed unarmed black teenager Trayvon Martin is changing the rules on how civilian patrols can operate to help prevent a recurrence and revive the program’s reputation.
The new rules, to be released at a community meeting on November 5 in Sanford, Florida, will state explicitly that residents acting under the authority of neighborhood watch may not carry a firearm or pursue someone they deem suspicious.
“Neighborhood watch was always intended to be a program where you observe what is going on and report it to police. In light of everything that has gone on, that’s what we’re really going to go back and push. That’s what this program is and that’s all it is,” said Shannon Cordingly, spokeswoman for the Sanford Police Department.
Zimmerman, who is Hispanic, was acquitted in July in the February 2012 death of Martin.
The prosecution accused him of racially profiling Martin, a high school student visiting from Miami, and then pursuing, confronting and shooting him.
The jury considered Zimmerman’s self-defense claim in light of Florida’s Stand Your Ground law, which rescinded the duty of citizens to try to retreat from a confrontation.
“People in the community are nervous to join a group (neighborhood watch) 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 said.
Neighborhood watch was formally organized in 1972 under the National Sheriffs’ Association.
It began as a response to the notorious 1964 murder of Catherine Susan “Kitty” Genovese, whose cries for help as she was attacked outside her Queens apartment were ignored by dozens of neighbors. One was famously quoted as saying she didn’t want to get involved.
Today’s neighborhood groups often are untrained and unsupervised by police, vary in their dedication to the job, and remain unregistered with either the sheriffs’ association or local police agencies.
In 2011, when Zimmerman organized a watch group in his gated neighborhood, Sanford police offered a handbook and a presentation by a police volunteer explaining the role of the group in helping deter crime.
Sanford’s new rules are laid out in a more detailed handbook and will require neighborhood watch groups to undergo training, register members with the police department and regularly update their status with the department, Cordingly said.
The neighborhood watch program will be overseen by the department’s new full-time three-officer community relations unit, she said.
Cordingly said the police department for the first time will map out the locations and keep track of neighborhood watch groups.
She said any neighborhood watch member who violates the rules, including carrying a weapon, will face removal from the program but will not be charged with a crime.
Martin’s family in April settled their wrongful death claim for Trayvon’s death against The Retreat at Twin Lakes subdivision for what was reportedly at least $1 million.
( This story has been corrected to fix date of Martin’s death in 4th paragraph to February 2012 from July 2012))
Reporting by Barbara Liston, editing by Jane Sutton and Gunna Dickson