Who Watches Neighborhood Watch in Gated Communities?

neighborhood watchAlthough impunity for apparent racial profiling has been much discussed after the trial of George Zimmerman for the death of Trayvon Martin, the issues raised go far beyond to affect all citizens. The acquittal has empowered vigilantes across the nation, creating a situation of potential chaos in which anyone with a gun can pursue anyone else and shoot to kill on mere whim.

Now everyone is now a potential Jim Crow who may prefer to cross the street if an approaching person looks suspicious.

Zimmerman did not act on the authority of any law enforcement agency or even his gated community. As a vigilante, he decided on his own to go on patrol. The judge explained the “stand your ground” law to the jury, assuring acquittal.

However, the National Sheriffs’ Association (NSA), which has sponsored the neighborhood watch program for four decades, issued a statement of condemnation one month before the trial that warrants close attention: “The alleged action of a ‘self-appointed neighborhood watchman’ last month in Sanford, Florida, significantly contradicts the principles of the Neighborhood Watch Program,” declared NSA Executive Director Aaron D. Kennard.

Why? According to Kennard, “The Neighborhood Watch Program fosters collaboration and cooperation with the community and local law enforcement by encouraging citizens to be aware of what is going on in their communities and contact law enforcement if they suspect something – NOT take the law in their own hands.”

The purpose of the Neighborhood Watch Program, according to NSA, is to enable citizens to act as the “eyes and ears” within their community and notify police immediately when they observe suspicious activity. The local police, thus, did their job when they advised Zimmerman to stay in the car and await police to investigate. Zimmerman ignored police instructions.

But the incident also raises questions about the gated community in which Zimmerman lived. Who runs the community? What are the rules governing the community? How could they allow a self-appointed neighborhood watch captain to operate?

The Los Angeles Police Department has definite procedures for establishing a neighborhood watch program. Before a sign about a neighborhood watch is posted, certain requirements must be met, including training. Sanford , Florida, also sponsors a neighborhood watch program. So now the relationship between the police department and the gated community needs to be scrutinized if Martin’s relatives are to sue for negligence in a civil lawsuit.

Legal experts agree that vigilantes are allowed if they do not break the law and do not impersonate a police officer. But in 1871 Congress acted to stop actions by the Ku Klux Klan, giving some power to the federal government to stop vigilantism. As later amended and incorporated into the code of federal regulations, the law is relevant to “stand your ground laws” and reads as follows:

“Every person who under color of any statute . . . subjects, or causes to be subjected, any citizen of the United States or other person within the jurisdiction thereof to the deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws, shall be liable to the party injured in an action at law, suit in equity, or other proper proceeding for redress . . . ”

michael haasIn other words, Trayvon Martin’s parents can seek monetary relief in a federal civil suit, particularly after the claim by one member of the jury that George Zimmerman “got away with murder.” Clearly, Trayvon Martin was deprived of the right to life without due process of law, a violation of the Fifth Amendment. Lack of due process occurred because Zimmerman was not authorized by his gated community to act as he did, and he disobeyed a direct order from the Sanford Police Department.

But a larger implication of the case is that anyone can become a vigilante, commit an unwitnessed crime with impunity, and never have to defend such actions personally in court. In light of the Zimmerman case, more clarification is needed in the law before dark streets in America become open season for self-appointed vigilantes to shoot anyone they want.

Michael Haas

Saturday, 28 July 2013

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