Neighborhood watch programs have long been the eyes and ears of local law enforcement, keeping tabs on suspicious behavior. The shooting death of unarmed Trayvon Martin by a watch volunteer may incite debate over how to balance vigilance and action, NPR reports. Recordings of a 911 call by George Zimmerman to police in Sanford, Fl., suggest he overstepped basic protocols set down by the National Sheriffs’ Association’s manual for such watch groups. Zimmerman shot and killed the 17-year-old in what he said was an act of self-defense during a patrol. “Although Mr. Zimmerman apparently was not part of any official neighborhood watch organization, even if he had been, these folks don’t have any more power than ordinary citizens,” says law Prof. Paul Butler of George Washington University. “They are not law enforcement officials.”
About 25,000 watch groups are registered with the sheriffs’ association, which started its program in 1972. Other groups are registered with local law enforcement. The association called Zimmerman a “self-appointed neighborhood watchman,” and it is unclear whether he would have been familiar with NSA guidelines. Most neighborhood watch programs have functioned safely and helped reduce crime, says a 2009 federal report. There have been other cases of surveillance escalating into violence. A man in Utah was shot dead in 2009 by the father of a teenage girl who apparently mistook the community watch member’s questioning of his daughter for an incident of stalking. Chris Tutko, who runs the sheriffs’ association’s neighborhood watch group, says the manual his organization distributes says that citizens should never take action on their observations. This message has been harder to get out as budget cuts to local law enforcement have forced some departments to curtail their support for watch groups. “It used to be that departments had an officer assigned specifically to the local neighborhood watch program, but there’s not much money for that anymore,” Tutko says. He says one problem with unsanctioned programs is that without police aid and member screening, “you have no way of knowing if you’re letting the bad guys in.” For neighborhood groups, “firearms are definitely out,” Tutko says.