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A neighborhood watch or neighbourhood watch (see spelling differences), also called a crime watch or neighbourhood crime watch, is an organized group of citizens devoted to crime and vandalism prevention within a neighborhood. In the United States it builds on the concept of a town watch from Colonial America.
Neighborhood watches are not vigilante organizations. When suspecting criminal activities, members are encouraged to contact authorities and not to intervene.
The current American system of neighborhood watches began developing in the late 1960s as a response to the rape and murder of Kitty Genovese in Queens, New York. People became outraged after reports that a dozen witnesses did nothing to save Genovese or to apprehend her killer. Some locals formed groups to watch over their neighborhoods and to look out for any suspicious activity in their areas. Shortly thereafter, the National Sheriffs' Association began a concerted effort in 1972 to revitalize the "watch group" effort nationwide.
The neighborhood watch system gained intense media attention after the February, 2012, fatal shooting of teenager Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida by George Zimmerman, an appointed neighborhood watch coordinator. Zimmerman, who wasn't acting in his neighborhood watch role at the time of the shooting, claimed self-defense and was tried for second-degree murder and manslaughter before he was acquitted from all charges. His actions on the night of the shooting generated controversy as he exited his vehicle and was carrying a gun, both of which go against neighborhood watch recommendations. He has also been accused by prosecutors of profiling Martin, and he is being investigated by the U.S. Justice Department for possibly committing a racial hate crime. Martin was black and Zimmerman is a mixed-race Hispanic.
In another incident involving a neighborhood watch, Eliyahu Werdesheim, part of an Orthodox Jewish community in Maryland, was convicted in May 2012 of second-degree assault and false imprisonment for beating and then pinning down a teenager he thought suspicious in 2010. Werdersheim and his brother, who had also been charged in the case but was acquitted, chose a bench trial, contending they would not get a fair trial due to the publicity over the Martin case. He was given a three-year suspended sentence and three years of probation at sentencing in June 2012.
A June 2012 New York Times article reported that neighborhood watches in the New York City area are growing again after decades of decrease due to lower crime rates. It also said that neighborhood watch groups fell under scrutiny since the shooting of Trayvon Martin.
In response to the Trayvon Martin case, Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) began drafting a bill that would require neighborhood watch groups to be certified and limit their duties. Currently, with local police agencies setting guidelines for their neighborhood watches, groups across the U.S. vary greatly in their scope, function, the level of activity by their members, and training. Robert McCrie, professor of security management at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City, disagrees with Lee's initiative. He believes that standards for neighborhood watches “are best left to the state or local community,” although he would support background checks for volunteers.
The town watch program is similar to that of the neighborhood watch, the major difference is that the Town Watch tend to actively patrol in pseudo-uniforms, i.e. marked vests or jackets and caps, and is equipped with two way radios to directly contact the local police. The Town Watch serves as an auxiliary to the police which provides weapons (if any), equipment, and training. The town watch usually returns their gear at the end of their duty.
Like the town watchman of colonial America, each citizen must take an active interest in protecting their neighbors and be willing to give their time and effort to this volunteer activity.