Friday, December 15, 2017
Public safety

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 [email protected] or (813) 226-3433.

Comments
Tampa police seek ‘person of interest’ in Dec. 3 homicide

Tampa police seek ‘person of interest’ in Dec. 3 homicide

TAMPA — Police are seeking a "person of interest" who they believe has information about a Dec. 3 drive-by shooting that killed a 22-year-old man.Police are searching for Anan Motilal, 25. He stands about 5-foot-10 and weighs 180 pounds. He may have ...
Updated: 4 hours ago

Pinellas Park officer stuns middle school student with Taser

PINELLAS PARK — A school resource officer stunned a middle school student with a Taser while trying to break up a fight between her and another female student on Thursday, police said.Neither the Pinellas Park officer nor the students involved in the...
Updated: 5 hours ago
Bob’s Carpet and Flooring heir was source of family strife before arrest

Bob’s Carpet and Flooring heir was source of family strife before arrest

An heir to a local flooring company charged with failing to report the death of a young woman last year has a troubled criminal history and was a source of strife in his family business, according to court records.Robert Butler III, 52, was arrested ...
Updated: 7 hours ago
Horrified friends watch screaming woman driven to her death in Plant City

Horrified friends watch screaming woman driven to her death in Plant City

PLANT CITY — Jonathon Adams heard a scream, "like a dog getting run over by a car," then saw a minivan come tearing around the corner with a woman he knew dangling out of the passenger side.It was the start of a deadly sequence of events Dec. 8 that ...
Updated: 7 hours ago
Dade City man turns himself in on warrants for Polk armed robbery

Dade City man turns himself in on warrants for Polk armed robbery

DADE CITY — A 25-year-old man wanted in connection with the attempted robbery of a taxi driver in Lakeland turned himself in late Wednesday night after being prompted by his mother, according to the Pasco County Sheriff’s Office.Edner Dely of Dade Ci...
Updated: 8 hours ago

Deputies: Fleeing suspect shoots, injures dog as he runs through yards

DOVER — While fleeing from deputies, a man shot a dog inside a fenced yard Thursday, according to the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office.Deputies said they were attempting to pull over a vehicle that might have been stolen near Milagro Court and Bl...
Updated: 9 hours ago

Amtrak train strikes, kills 60-year-old woman in Lakeland

The Polk County Sheriff’s Office is investigating the death of a 60-year-old woman who was hit by an Amtrak train on Thursday.The woman was struck at 12:30 p.m. in the railroad intersection of Highway 92 East and Fairway Avenue in Lakeland, deputies ...
Updated: 9 hours ago

Palm Harbor woman, 23, killed while crossing Seminole Boulevard

SEMINOLE — A 23-year-old Palm Harbor woman was fatally injured when she was struck by a sport-utility vehicle while crossing Seminole Boulevard on Wednesday night, according to the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office.The incident took place at about 8:4...
Updated: 9 hours ago

Second Ruskin man sought in theft of cell tower equipment that interrupted service

TAMPA —The Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office has obtained a warrant for the arrest of a second suspect in the theft of batteries from cell phone towers that interrupted phone service and the 911 emergency call system.Investigators are looking for ...
Published: 12/14/17
Florida Missing Child Alert canceled for Jacksonville boy, 2

Florida Missing Child Alert canceled for Jacksonville boy, 2

A Jacksonville boy, 2, who was reported missing early Thursday morning, has been found safe.A Florida Missing Child Alert has been canceled for Legend Jones, who had last been seen in the 1900 block of Fouraker Road in Jacksonville, according to the ...
Published: 12/14/17