Tuesday, December 12, 2017
Public safety

Volunteer: Most crime watches are boring, unlike Zimmerman's

Ed Rickly has no opinion about whether George Zimmerman is guilty or innocent.

But he can say for sure that, as a crime watch volunteer, Zimmerman was a disaster.

"He was stupid," said Rickly, 79, president of the Spring Hill Area Residential Patrol, or SHARP. "He was given instruction on how to do it the correct way, and he didn't do it."

On the outside chance you don't recognize the name, Zimmerman is the former Sanford crime watch captain now on trial for shooting and killing Trayvon Martin. He left his car to pursue Martin on foot and kept following him after a sheriff's dispatcher told him, "We don't need you to do that."

Rickly, concerned that the Sanford incident might give some people the wrong impression about crime watch groups, offered to take me on his regular rounds last week, starting at his home near the Oak Hills Golf Club.

SHARP's duties include locking the gates of parks each evening, which naturally takes members out after dark. But because most of the members are old enough that they don't like to drive at night, most of their patrols — including the one I went on — start in the midafternoon.

Rickly, a retired delivery truck driver from southern Indiana, climbed into a little maroon Honda SUV and not, as I expected, a long sedan with a light bar and a buggy-whip antenna. His uniform was a white polo shirt and khaki shorts. He didn't carry a gun, as Zimmerman had, just a clipboard with a list of unoccupied homes that he needed to check on.

"We build our patrols around these lists," he said.

He rolled by each home at just faster than jogging speed, looking for jimmied doors, broken windows or stolen air conditioning units and, after passing each one, got on his radio to give a SHARP dispatcher the all clear.

He then cruised behind the strip malls on U.S. 19, observing trash bins, stacks of pallets, parked delivery trucks and absolutely nothing that appeared at all suspicious.

That's half the job — looking.

The other half? Just being seen in a car with a magnetic "Crime Watch" sign on one door. Sometimes loiterers get an eyeful as he approaches a park gate, he said, and "start running like scared rabbits."

It doesn't go beyond that, though. Ever. You don't leave the car. You don't pursue. You just call the Sheriff's Office, which is difficult for some SHARP members to accept.

"One guy insisted on carrying a Taser and had his car decked out with flashing lights," Rickly said. "He was a cowboy, I have to admit."

He was weeded out by deputies who interview and conduct background checks on all crime watch volunteers.

But usually, the more gung-ho candidates weed themselves out, which is one reason the group is chronically short of members.

Several volunteers have made it through the screening process, but never showed up and never said why.

"The assumption," Rickly said, "is that they see how unexciting it is and decide not to participate."

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Published: 12/12/17