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RED-BLUE AMERICA: Do watch groups need regulation?

on August 12, 2013 10:30 AM

In the wake of the Trayvon Martin case — in which a Florida teenager was shot and killed by George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer who said he was acting in self-defense — a Pennsylvania legislator is introducing a bill that would require neighborhood watch groups to be trained by state police and recertified every five years.

’’I want them to be registered. I want them to be trained. I want them to have an appropriation,” said state Rep. Louise Bishop, D-Philadelphia.

Are such regulations necessary, or are they an unconscionable hindrance to private action? Joel Mathis and Ben Boychuk, the Red-Blue America columnists, debate the issue.


MATHIS: You don’t want most neighborhood watch groups being forced to jump through the hoops of certification and regulation. At best, such groups do more than make a neighborhood safe — they also draw a community together. Putting the grandma next door through even a mild version of boot camp would just discourage such efforts.

But freedom from regulations should apply only to groups that stick to the original ethos of “neighborhood watch.” They’re “eyes and ears” for local law enforcement agencies, tripwires that can bring police cars in a hurry when a neighbor notices something is askance.

Those that exceed that role, though, will probably find themselves liable when trouble arrives. Whatever you think of Zimmerman, the fact is he wasn’t content to simply act as eyes and ears: He became an active tracker, leaving his vehicle — against a dispatcher’s advice — to pursue the boy based on no real evidence of wrongdoing.

In that moment, Zimmerman exceeded his town watch responsibilities, and became something different, a posse of one. Such folks — and the groups they represent — should be trained, if only for their own protection from injury and litigation.

The Philadelphia Police Department makes that distinction clear on its website, saying that while it “supports and appreciates its Town Watch members and the work they do, the Philadelphia Police Department is not responsible for the actions taken by persons performing neighborhood watch-type activities. Certified Police Officers are trained in use of force and arrest procedures.

Civilians taking such actions can face both criminal and civil actions. Be safe and not sorry!” Some cities have “citizens patrols” whose jobs are to seek out criminals and make arrests. They really do augment local police — and they really do receive both training and regulation.

If town watch members want to do that job, they must take on the burdens that come with it. If they can accept a limited (but important) role in protecting their communities, they should be left alone.


BOYCHUK: Neighborhood watch groups don’t need training, certification or regulation. What on earth would they be trained to do? Speed-dial 911? Memorize license plates? We already have people who are professionally trained, registered, certified and who have “an appropriation” from state and local governments for public safety. They’re called police. They do the best they can, but they can’t be everywhere. That’s where neighborhood watch groups come in.

It’s rarely a good idea for elected officials to offer sweeping legislation to remedy extraordinary events, and it’s almost always a bad sign when they push meddlesome new regulations to satisfy a personal grievance. Bishop, the Pennsylvania state legislator proposing the town watch rules, has a perfectly foolish reason for advancing her bill. She says a town watch group member once accosted her grandson.

Maybe Bishop’s grandson deserved a bit of scrutiny. Or maybe he really was treated rudely. With all due respect, so what? Would the state weed out the ill-mannered along with felons and pedophiles? Seems unlikely.

We could argue to the point of exhaustion whether Zimmerman overstepped his bounds. But whatever your view of his case, Zimmerman is hardly representative of neighborhood watch groups.

The larger lesson is you simply cannot regulate freak occurrences. You cannot outlaw rash or imprudent judgments. You can only hold people responsible for their actions later. (Don’t forget, Zimmerman still faces a multimillion-dollar wrongful death lawsuit from Martin’s parents.) Above all, you don’t want to do anything that would discourage people from looking out for themselves or their neighbors. That would be folly.

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