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Policy of caution guides Neighborhood Watch groups

When volunteers join a Neighborhood Watch group in St. Petersburg, they sign a waiver.

They will not approach suspects. They will not detain people. They won't carry weapons.

That's common sense, many Neighborhood Watch coordinators say, despite the alleged actions of self-appointed watch captain George Zimmerman, who admitted to fatally shooting an unarmed teen in his gated Sanford neighborhood last month.

"You don't do anything that would potentially put you in harm's way," said St. Petersburg's Broadwater Neighborhood Watch coordinator Ted Seefeldt. "You simply observe and report to police."

Across the Tampa Bay area this week, law enforcement agencies and Neighborhood Watch groups roundly rejected the pursuit of a suspect, as Zimmerman's 911 call indicated he did.

Though many declined to pass judgement on the Sanford man, who doesn't face charges, they described their group's policies — many of them meant to discourage such an encounter. Several agencies explicitly prohibit volunteers from carrying firearms.

Volunteers are the "eyes and ears" of law enforcement, many said. Not the hands.

"The confrontation of suspicious persons or the apprehension of criminals should be left to the police," according to the Tampa Police Department's Neighborhood Watch policy.

"Neighborhood Crime Watch groups are not vigilante forces," a Hernando Sheriff's Office handout for volunteers states.

In Pasco, the Sheriff's Office shares guidelines with its 139 Neighborhood Watch groups.

"If you see suspicious activity or a criminal act, call the Sheriff's Office," the guidelines state. "No matter how well-intended your actions might be, it could have serious repercussions."

• • •

One morning last spring, a man walked into the Broadwater neighborhood, near Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, wearing a backpack.

He traveled door-to-door asking if he could trim trees — but he didn't have any supplies, Neighborhood Watch coordinator Seefeldt noted.

Seefeldt was on bicycle patrol at the time, riding through the streets. There had been a rash of recent burglaries, and Seefeldt was suspicious. He casually asked the man what he was doing and watched as the man walked down the street.

Then Seefeldt called police. He didn't follow, argue with or try to detain the man, he said.

"We don't have patrollers who do that," he said.

A police officer was there in minutes.

In Holiday, 75-year-old Roy Paulin patrols his neighborhood by car, as part of the Pasco Sheriff's Office's security patrol — a more proactive version of Neighborhood Watch.

He had to take a class with other volunteers, where he says deputies told them to never chase a suspect. They aren't allowed to carry weapons.

They aren't even allowed to get out of their cars.

"We are not law enforcement officers," Paulin said. "We don't have the power to arrest, which means we cannot detain anybody."

For the past 13 years in Tampa's Beach Park neighborhood, residents have pitched in to hire an extra-duty Tampa police officer for nighttime patrols, said neighborhood association president Joel Williams, 50.

Their Neighborhood Watch group focuses more on communication — sharing safety tips and crime trends — while the patrolling is done by someone who legally can be more than just the eyes and ears, Williams said.

"And I can't imagine that any Tampa police officer — or any law enforcement officer — would have taken the same steps that guy took in Sanford," he said.

• • •

The national Neighborhood Watch Program has its roots in the 1960s, when authorities were looking for ways to cut down on crime and get citizens away from their televisions and looking out for their neighbors.

The National Sheriffs' Association officially launched the program in 1972. Tampa Bay has more than 1,000 Neighborhood Watch associations.

Some offer training, few do background checks. The Pasco County Sheriff's Office, for example, makes sure its security patrol volunteers don't have felonies or serious misdemeanors.

Several studies have found these groups help reduce crime while others cast doubt on their effectiveness, pointing to the fact that Neighborhood Watch associations are often active in affluent areas less prone to crime.

Though many neighborhood watches are sanctioned by the national group, some operate independently, as the Sheriffs' Association says was the case with Zimmerman's group.

Nonetheless, the association has received a lot of attention since the shooting, and it has publicly denounced Zimmerman's behavior, saying it "significantly contradicts the principals of the Neighborhood Watch Program."

The program "does not in any way, shape, or form advocate citizens to take the law in their own hands," the Sheriffs' Association said in a written statement.

St. Petersburg police spokesman Mike Puetz says he doesn't believe any group or agency — including the Sanford Police Department, which did not return a call seeking comment — would encourage the type of action Zimmerman took.

"It's always been our policy, and I think it's the policy of most agencies, to not encourage any kind of physical involvement," Puetz said.

That's because despite any kind of Neighborhood Watch affiliation, volunteers are just like any other citizen, he said.

They don't have police training. They don't have police authority.

"They're private citizens," he said.

Information from the Associated Press was used in this report. Times news researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Jessica Vander Velde can be reached at jvandervelde@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3433.

Policy of caution guides Neighborhood Watch groups 03/22/12 [Last modified: Thursday, March 22, 2012 10:25pm]
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