policy

Defining the Mission and Identity of the Neighborhood Watch, and How We Can Make them Better

February 20, 2019 | Ben Treutler

Edited by: Destiny Staten

In the summer of 2012, two men in a car followed Corey Ausby, a 15-year-old teenager, as he walked down a residential street in the Park Heights area of Baltimore. The two then proceeded to confront him after some following, saying, “We know who you are; we saw you on Park Heights, you don’t belong here.”[1] Feeling threatened, Corey decided to pick up a nail-studded board nearby, most likely looking for a means with which to defend himself. Afraid of the potential danger of the board, one of the men struck Corey in the head with a walkie-talkie before pinning him to the ground. Eliyahu Werdesheim, the man who struck Corey, was later convicted of second-degree assault by Baltimore circuit judge Pamela White; his brother Avi, the other man traveling with him at the time, was cleared of all charges. It was later found through Eliyahu’s testimony that he was a member of the neighborhood watch group, Shomrin, and was responding to a call for a suspicious activity.[2]

Given that the conviction happened only a few months after February 2012 when the nationally known Trayvon Martin shooting happened, the case heavily divided members of the Baltimore community. Many questions were raised about neighborhood watch policy[3] and racial profiling given Werdesheim is a Caucasian man and Corey is an African American teenager.

Neighborhood watches primarily function as an intermediate of sorts between the community and the police, and are frequently praised for reducing crime and making the residents feel safer while also enhancing the sense of community and togetherness of a particular area.[4] They have grown in popularity in recent years because of police brutality, as residents desired a more cooperative approach to handling crime. Joe Bondar, a family friend of the Werdesheins, argued that complaints towards the Neighborhood Watch programs are misplaced as, “the police do absolutely nothing, so why put blame on someone trying to do something about it?”[5] However, because of cases like the Ausby assault and the Trayvon Martin shooting, the potential for abuse in power and some of the faults of the system are brought to light. Thus it begs the question, how can we avoid situations like Ausby’s assault in the future?

Perhaps the most glaring difference between neighborhood watches and regular policemen, and the most likely cause of the aforementioned incidents, is the lack of training and cohesiveness amongst the Neighborhood Watch organizations. This becomes very apparent when incidents like the above happen. Whereas in most cases, policemen have training to de-escalate and handle dangerous situations in a lawful manner, the aforementioned neighborhood watchers above went out of their way to escalate the situation—much like when Zimmerman proceeded to pursue Trayvon Martin on foot after following him with a car.[6] In Turnage v  Kasper, the jury of an appellate court in Georgia found Kasper, a victim of repeated harassment by the neighborhood watch Turnage, in favor of upwards of $200000 USD on her claims of malicious prosecution and emotional distress.[7] Her harassment included getting unwanted pictures taken of her, being forbidden on certain roads, and getting police called on her multiple times when she tried to protest the harassment—which on one occasion led to her staying in a cell for 12 hours.[8] In this case, the jury reasoned that it is unlawful for people to conspire and instigate an arrest. This ruling, along with the ruling of the Werdesheim case, shows a general trend of less power being given to neighborhood watchers. It is interesting to note, however, that the jury found Zimmerman not guilty on all counts, despite there being evidence of escalation. This being said, there is also a different racial and gender bias at play in the case of Trayvon Martin’s shooting that might have affected the jury decision.[9]

Thus, it can be seen that the chief problem with neighborhood watchers is that some watchers act as police without any clear cohesiveness, authority, or training. They become not ‘neighborhood watchers’ but ‘neighborhood instigators’, a form of pseudo-police without any of the limitations that apply to law enforcement.

It is true that less power or placing restrictions on neighborhood watchers might make for less incidents and tragedies, but it also must be considered that the very nature of neighborhood watching—patrolling potentially dangerous areas and checking suspicious activity—requires them to have more freedom in their activities, such as being allowed to carry a firearm on duty.[10] I believe that, because these freedoms are at times necessary, the best solution is for neighborhood watchers to undergo more training so that these freedoms are responsibly used. A good analogy would be a medical practitioner gaining more freedom in relation to the amount of schooling they’ve had, such as being granted certain freedom with procedure once having reached a certain amount of experience. The NNW (National Neighborhood Watch), a subdivision of the National Sheriff’s Association and an authority of sorts on neighborhood watches nationwide, lists a number of requirements to start and register a Neighborhood Watch group. These requirements include developing an action plan and communicating with law enforcement, but there is no training requirement of any kind to start a Neighborhood Watch—arguably the most crucial one in order to prevent another tragedy along the lines of Trayvon Martin.[11] Furthermore, there appears to be no meaningful background check necessary for anyone registering to be a neighborhood watch participant, with the website even encouraging people to, “recruit and organize as many neighbors as possible,” without any concern for the quality of the people being recruited.[13]

If the route of intensive training and/or background check isn’t followed, then the opposite end of the spectrum would also be desirable, with the neighborhood watchers being more restricted in terms of how far they can police. The NNW even explicitly states that it, “does not advocate taking action on suspicious activity in their neighborhood.”[13] In a way, this approach would be taking the Neighborhood Watch back to its original roots of just observing and reporting suspicious activity, reducing crime simply by cooperating with police. Sanford police chief Cecil E. Smith, in an attempt to improve the city’s image after the Trayvon Martin incident, announced changes to the neighborhood watch department with the highlight being firearm carry is now heavily discouraged.[14] While this route would be a good start to solving the problem, it should be noted that in order for this to happen effectively, the community has to have trust in the police’s ability to do their job. Thereby, watchers can comfortably cooperate with the law enforcement and not feel the need to take matters into their own hands via vigilantism. While the spotlight has been negative recently and there exists potential for abuse, neighborhood watches can be a great asset towards making a community safer and reducing crime, as well as promoting a sense of unity in the neighborhood. However, we must be able to clearly define what a Neighborhood Watcher is. Are they police? Are they just normal citizens? What are their boundaries? For if we take a feeble, ambiguous approach to give it a definition, at times calling them pseudo-police while at others calling them civilians, it will only serve to perpetuate the problem. A firm stance is needed, and it could potentially end up saving another person’s life, so that they can get up and live to see another day.

Ben Treutler is a sophomore at Johns Hopkins University majoring in Biomedical Engineering.


Citations

[1] “Eli Werdesheim Testifies in His Own Trial.” WBAL. October 09, 2017. Accessed October 27, 2018. https://www.wbaltv.com/article/eli-werdesheim-testifies-in-neighborhood-watch-trial/7073997.

1] “Eli Werdesheim Testifies in His Own Trial.” WBAL. October 09, 2017. Accessed October 27, 2018. https://www.wbaltv.com/article/eli-werdesheim-testifies-in-neighborhood-watch-trial/7073997.

[1] “Eli Werdesheim Testifies in His Own Trial.” WBAL. October 09, 2017. Accessed October 27, 2018. https://www.wbaltv.com/article/eli-werdesheim-testifies-in-neighborhood-watch-trial/7073997.

[2] Kilar, Steve. “Elder Werdesheim Brother Convicted in Assault of Teen.” Baltimoresun.com. November 30, 2012. Accessed October 27, 2018. http://www.baltimoresun.com/news/breaking/bs-md-werdesheim-verdict-20120503-story.html.

[3] PeopleVine, CCW Safe via. “Legal Case Analysis: The Zimmerman Case- Introduction of the Facts – CCW Safe National | CCW Safe Weapon Liability | CCW Safe Defense Attorneys.” CCW Safe. Accessed October 27, 2018. https://ccwsafe.com/blog/legal-case-analysis-the-zimmerman-case.

[4] Greene, Shannon, John Oesterholm, and Yiqian Fan. The Effect of Neighborhood Watch Programs on Neighborhood Crime in Medford Oregon. Master’s thesis, University of Oregon, 2014. Medford: Medford Police Department, 2014. 1-30.

[5] “Eli Werdesheim Testifies in His Own Trial.” WBAL.

[6] State of Florida v. George Zimmerman (2013)

[7] Turnage v. Kasper, 307 Ga. App. 172, 182, 704 S.E. 2d 842, 852 (2010).

[8] Ibid.

[9] Staats, Cheryl. “Implicit Racial Bias, the Zimmerman Trial, the Verdict.” Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity. Accessed October 30, 2018. http://kirwaninstitute.osu.edu/implicit-racial-bias-and-the-zimmerman-trial-and-verdict/.

[10] Constitution Check: Do Neighborhood Watch Volunteers Have a Right to Carry a Gun?” National Constitution Center – Constitutioncenter.org. Accessed October 27, 2018. https://constitutioncenter.org/blog/constitution-check-do-neighborhood-watch-volunteers-have-a-right-to-carry-a.

[11] “Register a Watch.” Register a Watch | National Neighborhood Watch. Accessed October 27, 2018. http://www.nnw.org/register-watch.

[12] Ibid.

[13] “About Neighborhood Watch.” About Neighborhood Watch | National Neighborhood Watch. Accessed October 30, 2018. https://www.nnw.org/about-neighborhood-watch.

[14] Karlamangla, Soumya. “Neighborhood Watch Rules to Change in Fla. City Where Trayvon Martin Was Killed.” Los Angeles Times. November 02, 2013. Accessed October 30, 2018. http://articles.latimes.com/2013/nov/02/news/chi-neighborhood-watch-rules-to-change-in-city-where-trayvon-martin-died-20131102.

Photo Credit: Flickr / Jeremy Brooks

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