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Sanford's New Rules Say No Guns On Neighborhood Watch


As we mentioned, the new police chief of Sanford, Florida, where the Trayvon Martin shooting took place, has now issued new guidelines for neighborhood watch groups and volunteers. We wanted to hear more about that, so we've called NPR correspondent Greg Allen, who's been covering the story. Greg, thanks so much for joining us once again.

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: Oh, my pleasure, Michel.

MARTIN: So what specifically are the major changes called for in these guidelines?

ALLEN: I think the most important change is that - Police Chief Smith says he wants to enforce more accountability of neighborhood watch groups and actually have a kind of a chain-of-command going from police officers to neighborhood watch captains to block captains, all the way down to volunteers, so they have some kind of way of finding out what's going on and monitoring behavior. And of course as part of that, they're saying that when you're carrying out neighborhood watch activities, you should not carry a gun and you should not pursue anyone. Now those are guidelines that I think many neighborhood watch groups might already say they adhere to. But it'll be interesting to see how they're carried out. And they're going to be presenting these next week, so we'll see.

MARTIN: So the no guns aspect of it is the one that I think has gotten a lot of attention, but it's also that the volunteers need to register with the police and undergo background checks, and three officers are assigned to supervise. So what does that exactly mean? I mean, if you're going to have officers out with these people, what's the purpose of their being there? Or is that just to create a kind of chain of command for them?

ALLEN: It will be interesting to see how it plays out. I don't think it's thought that the officers will actually be out with the neighborhood watch people. And, you know, and we should remember that neighborhood watch groups really don't patrol, per se. The ones I've spoken to - and I've done, you know, some reporting over the last few years on this - that's not really what they do - what neighborhood watch groups do.

They're an informal network of people who keep their eyes and ears open and call the police when they see something that needs reporting. Now we can argue about whether George Zimmerman was just acting as neighborhood watch volunteer or doing something more, but, clearly, his activities are something that Chief Smith believes are not consistent with neighborhood watch. He even referred to that in an interview he did this week with some reporters saying that, we've had an incident where someone went beyond what neighborhood watch was intended to do, and we're going put these guidelines in place to change that and get back to basics.

MARTIN: The new police chief, Cecil Smith, has - as you mentioned - pressed for these changes, but are they enforceable? I mean, does he have the authority to insist that neighborhood watch groups adhere to these guidelines?

ALLEN: I'm not sure that we'll ever get to that point. A neighborhood watch group would have to - someone would have to challenge this in court. They'd have to have standings. What we hear from the Sanford Police Department is that, they say that many people were involved - were leery about being involved with some neighborhood watch programs because they say the entire program got kind of a bad name after the Trayvon Martin shooting, the George Zimmerman trial.

And people didn't want to be involved in something that they thought had been tarnished. So they said, we're going to try to kind of remove the tarnish by getting back to basics here. Now the question of whether it'll be challenged - you know, can you tell someone not to carry a gun when they're performing neighborhood watch duties? That I think could be something that could go to court if you have the right person to challenge it. I don't know if we'll see that or not, though.

MARTIN: So the question is, if you otherwise have the authority to carry a weapon, particularly a concealed weapon - or to carry weapon, period - if you otherwise have that authority, can the chief say, as a function of participating in this civic task, you can be asked not to carry it? I think that would sort of be the question. Well, what are people saying about that?

ALLEN: That will certainly be a legal question. We're already seeing on gun rights' blogs, people saying, clearly, this is not enforceable. Chief Smith is bridging the Second Amendment. I think they would argue that they're not doing that, that it's a voluntary program - a person can choose to be part of a neighborhood watch or not. And then as part of their guidelines, they suggest that you should not carry your guns when you're actually participating in the duties of the program. I'm not a lawyer, so I can't tell you what the law says about that, but I think it would be an interesting debate if it does get to court.

MARTIN: And you had mentioned that there had been a taint attached to some of these neighborhood watch programs. That's what you'd been hearing because people were disturbed by the whole scenario that came forward in this George Zimmerman trial. Do you feel that - or are you hearing from other people who are saying that this might alleviate some of that taint and encourage more people to participate once again because it would be perceived as being more supervised, more orderly in the public interest?

ALLEN: Right. Well, you know...


ALLEN: I - you know what? You hear from the people who work with neighborhood watch is that what George Zimmerman was doing that night was not ever what the program was intended to do. We don't want to go and redo the trial and whether he was following Trayvon Martin or not. But the idea is that they say you should never pursue people - that's what neighborhood watch says, and of course, that's what these new guidelines say. So they're just going back to the basics on these guidelines. The question of whether you carry a concealed weapon - I've heard from neighborhood watch groups that say they don't encourage it, but then, again that is one of these, you know, legal rights that is in the Constitution.

So I don't think they address that as closely. Now whether this will do something to bring it back - in Sanford, I think a lot of this is about reestablishing trust with the community. You know, Cecil Smith came on last spring - new police chief. He's African-American. He's been doing a lot to build ties with the community - one that's had a lot of history of some racial tensions. So, you know, I think this is all part of that and by having this handbook, holding a town meeting next week to discuss this - I think it puts this out on the table and kind of tries to start over again from the basis here about what neighborhood watch is intended to do and why we need to help the police just find out what's going on in our community.

MARTIN: Greg Allen is an NPR correspondent. He was with us from Miami. Thank you so much for joining us.

ALLEN: My pleasure, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.