Crime watch a valuable tool, when properly used

Public safety is of great concern among most residents in the Sunshine City. Look no further than the 168 crime watch groups sanctioned by the St. Petersburg Police Department.

Crime watch groups outnumber neighborhood associations more than 2-to-1, as there are only 80 of the latter registered in the city.

The large number of crime watch groups and the recent tragedy in Sanford are key reasons why city officials want to reach out to crime watch leaders.

In light of the Trayvon Martin case, police Chief Chuck Harmon sent a letter to crime watch coordinators last week, said police spokesman Bill Proffitt.

"Now is as good a time as ever for crime watch groups and neighborhood associations that support them to review current procedures and stress the importance of preventing confrontations initiated by volunteers while on patrol," Proffitt said.

And while there are countless well-meaning volunteers out on patrol, it is important to remember that "watching" and "reporting" to the police department are integral components to the success of a program.

"We really need to send a message as a reminder to people on the importance of neighborhood watches, but also to highlight what they should and should not do," Proffitt said.

City officials and national experts agree on one key point: A watch of any sort should begin with the basic premise of being neighborly.

As we've learned from the tragedy in Sanford, the suspicious person may have a legitimate reason for being on your street or in the neighborhood — as a guest of your neighbor.

Welding a magnetic shield on the side of a car doesn't bestow the same liberties or responsibilities of law enforcement.

"We have always instructed everyone in our Neighborhood Crime Watch Program never to engage," Harmon writes.

The police department "trains citizens to be the 'eyes and ears' only to the department."

Police concerns are legitimate. While fighting crime is job one, the last thing they need are self-deputized vigilantes on the loose.

Other experts agree.

"The word 'watch' is very important," said Thomas Skiba, chief executive officer of Community Associations Institute, based in Falls Church, Va., which has more than 31,000 member groups across the globe.

While Skiba agrees crime watch groups are an extension of the police, he's adamant that they shouldn't be confused as representatives of police. Skiba stresses that volunteers do everything possible to prevent confrontations that should be handled by police.

"I can't understand why some folks have trouble with the word 'watch' and what it means," he said.

"The last thing the police want is for folks to take matters in their own hands. They're pretty adamant about that for very good reasons."

But Skiba adds that there are a host of positives for a crime watch group, too.

"Neighborhood watches are very positive in most communities. … It's a great way to build community. But it has to be done the right way."

While most volunteers undoubtedly mean well, ill-advised tactics can pose risks to the volunteer and others.

And those tactics could lead to litigation for the volunteers and the neighborhood association or crime watch group.

"There's a whole line of cases that have come about in recent years," said Ellen Hirsch de Haan, a home­owners association attorney with Becker and Poliakoff in Clearwater.

She said homeowners associations run into trouble when volunteers operate under the radar of the larger associations that govern them.

"Having very detailed guidelines in writing and published for all residents to see is crucial,'' she said.

"It should include the scope for what the crime watch does and doesn't do. If you don't have that, you're wide open to a lawsuit," said de Haan who has more than 26 years of HOA litigation experience.

Police officials and experts offer sage advice: Get to know your neighbors — at least three houses across the street and the street behind your home — and your neighbors' cars.

A few simple acts of kindness can go a long way.

Sandra J. Gadsden can be reached at sgadsden@tampabay.com or at (727) 893-8874.

. Fast facts

Crime watch tips

Experts agree that all crime watch groups should consider the following:

• Seek help from the police department for start-up support, guidance and training.

• Seek the advice of a lawyer with expertise in community association law.

• Recruit only responsible volunteers who will follow procedures.

• Develop methods, such as websites and email, to keep volunteers and residents informed.

• Reinforce all procedures — especially the do-not-engage rules.

Crime watch a valuable tool, when properly used 04/28/12 [Last modified: Saturday, April 28, 2012 5:31am]

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