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After Trayvon Martin: A Look at Hoco Neighborhood Watch

In the wake of Trayvon Martin's death, Howard County takes another look at community policing programs.

The premise behind Neighborhood Watch is simple.

“Neighbors working in conjunction with law enforcement are the eyes and ears of their community,” said Pat Sill, president of the Maryland Community Crime Prevention Institute, which trains law enforcement and community policing organizations.

“If they see something suspicious they report it,” she said of Neighborhood Watch volunteers. “They’re not to be anything more than eyes and ears.”

In the wake of the shooting death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in Florida, allegedly at the hands of a Neighborhood Watch volunteer, officials in Howard County may be taking another look at how community-policing organizations are operating.

“It always bears looking at when you have any incident,” said C. Vernon Gray, administrator of the Howard County Office of Human Rights. He spoke with County Executive Ken Ulman and Police Chief William McMahon in the wake of Martin’s death to revisit the operations of the local Neighborhood Watch programs.

Martin’s death has led to a surge of public criticism, much of it expressed on social media. According to the Sun-Sentinel, The Department of Justice, the FBI and the Florida State Attorney’s Office are all investigating the shooting.

George Zimmerman, a Neighborhood Watch volunteer, allegedly shot Martin on Feb. 26 as the teenager was returning to his father's house from a convenience store. Zimmerman has not been arrested or charged with any crime according to reports. Read comprehensive coverage of the incident and its impact on the Sun-Sentinel’s website.

In Howard County, Neighborhood Watch programs work “pretty nicely,” Gray said. “I know on my street … people don’t go out in a vigilante fashion. If they notice anything suspicious, they will call police or notify neighbors." 

Vigilantism is one of the reasons Howard County Police Community Liaison Bonita Linkins said she does not support neighborhood “patrols,” in which residents take a more active role, patrolling neighborhoods instead of simply observing.

At a with residents of the Bethgate neighborhood, Linkins told those concerned about a rash of break-ins that patrols can lead to trouble. One incident, she recalled, “turned into a vigilante-type circumstance … It turned into a physical assault situation.” 

There are several key differences between Maryland and Florida laws, particularly Florida's “Stand Your Ground” self-defense law, which is being called into question by local lawmakers, according to the Christian Science Monitor. The law permits the use of deadly force if a person “reasonably believes” his or her life, or someone else’s life is threatened.

Maryland has no such law, though SB411 allows residents to defend themselves with force in their homes or places of business. 

And firearms are difficult to come by in Maryland – it is up to local authorities to approve or deny an individual’s request for a permit although, according to the Baltimore Sun, a recent federal ruling may make it easier for residents to obtain firearms.  

Neither Ulman nor Sill could say whether an individual with a concealed weapons permit is allowed to carry that weapon while participating in a Neighborhood Watch program, which is not administered by the police department.

“That’s something that I want to revisit and make sure that we are square on that,” Ulman said at a meeting Wednesday with the police chief's Citizen's Advisory Council.

“As far as weapons and that kind of thing, I don’t know that it’s anything that’s specifically ever talked about,” Sill said.

“It’s eyes and ears, simply that.”

JH March 23, 2012 at 11:59 AM
Sad that we need to turn to neighborhood watch programs. The criminal element has become so common in our communities that people and property cannot be protected without extraordinary efforts. Some urban areas are like the wild west again -- or south side of Chicago. Why the decline in civil society?
Joseph Nowodzelski March 23, 2012 at 04:45 PM
JH I under stand the point you are making, but we do not need armed patrols that are under trained. These are exactly the unwanted situations that arise. Do we have to give our itineraries for the day and night shifts so we do not get shot; will we be prisoners in our own neighborhoods? Who the neighborhood watch people answer to? One last thought does the law "Stand you ground" not apply to Trayvon from the tape he did not start out to be the aggressor! I'm sure he felt that Mr. Zimmerman was threatening him?
Dick Blair March 28, 2012 at 07:07 PM
Was Trayvon Martin a Gangster? Is George Zimmerman being demonized? Nothing but the facts: http://z6mag.com/featured/was-trayvon-martin-a-gangster-is-george-zimmerman-being-demonized-166980.html#comment-16429
Gina March 28, 2012 at 07:49 PM
There are a lot of so called pictures surfacing of Trayvon, the gold tooth one I believe cause it does look like him. The one with the "Sabrina" tattoo there isn't any proof that's him. The other pic with the tattoo on the shoulder, lets remember this kid is 6'3" and 140lbs he's hardly going to have a muffin top or fat arms like the person in the picture. There are two witnesses that have said Trayvon was not on top since the news broke and one witness that "just" came forward on friday saying he was on top. Trayvon was not caught with marijuana, he was caught with an empty bag with marijuana residue in it, and even the police said that they were never able to prove the jewelry was stolen. He was suspended for the baggie and not the jewelry. Trayvon was not walking around at 3am. The 911 calls came in at 7:15pm. SO by your own link posted there are several items that aren't correct. Last time I checked tattoos, gold teeth, hoodies, or anything else he was accused of warrants a death sentence. He looks like every other teenager walking the streets and while it may be an eyesore for some people I hardly think it warrants death. So far the only FACT that has come out of this whole situation is that is Zimmerman would have stayed in the car like he was told to by the 911 operator Trayvon would still be alive, Zimmerman wouldn't have gotten his butt kicked & we would not even be talking about this today!
Michael March 31, 2012 at 01:56 AM
One question I've never heard answered....or even asked....is: what was Martin doing walking around in a "gated community" that he didn't live in? It has also never been mentioned (that I've heard) if this was a "racially mixed" community, or mid-upper-end white like many gated communities are? Zimmerman, was part of the community, was an experienced neighborhood watch volunteer, and obviously something about Martin raised suspicion....perhaps because it was plainly obvious that Martin didn't belong there. As I first asked, what was Martin doing there if he didn't live there?.
Brandie Jefferson April 02, 2012 at 03:18 AM
Hi Michael, According to news reports, Martin was visiting his father, who lived in the neighborhood.

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