Arming Neighborhood Watches

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The adage of the neighborhood watch goes back for generations. These informal volunteer organizations are the basis of community based policing. In these 'post-Zimmerman' days however, many neighborhood watches are examining the question of whether a big stick and a kind word is better than a kind word alone.

What is a neighborhood watch?

Quite possibly, as soon as the first two or three families joined in a tribe, co-habituating as neighbors, it was probably decided that they should form a neighborhood watch. Over the centuries, this concept has led to the growth of villages, then towns, and cities. In the colonial era, (back when we still had a king), each town had an established muster law. This meant that each able bodied male citizen had to keep "a Gun, fit for service, a cartridge box, and a sword, cutlass, or hanger, and at least 12 Charges of Powder and Ball, or Swan Shot, and 6 Spare Flints."

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(Neighborhood watch, circa 1636)

Each town had watches in which these citizen soldiers (militia) would stand post and patrol in times of danger. Since the 19th century, full-time law enforcement officers have assumed the full time patrol and town guard functions in most places, but the militia remained until 1903 when it became the National Guard.

In the 1960s, the first local citizens's organizations directly calling themselves a 'neighborhood watch' was started in New York to combat rampant crime. By 1972, the concept, backed by the National Sheriffs' Association, had gone nationwide. The fundamentals of the group are to collect concerned local citizens and engage them in preventing and controlling crime in their neighborhood. It is estimated that some 38% of homes in the United States currently are in areas where a neighborhood watch is in place. The National Town Watch, Guardian Angels and USAonWatch are some of the largest national groups that support such programs.

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(Even the Guardian Angels only carry staple guns)

The Zimmerman case

Unless you have been under a rock, you are well aware of the case of Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman. For those who aren't, the broad strokes are that Zimmerman, a legally armed local citizen wound up in a confrontation with an-under 18 teenager (Martin) that ended in the youth's death. Zimmerman had been a member of the local neighborhood watch in his Sanford, Florida hometown, although he was not 'on duty' during the incident.
Controversially, Zimmerman left his vehicle (which is frowned upon in many neighborhood watch guidelines) and was armed (also not recommended). While his actions were found consistent with self-defense by a local court, it still drew condemnation from many talking heads.

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Is it legal for watches to be armed?

Based on the Second Amendment to the Constitution, (A well-regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.): yes. As long as state or local laws do not prohibit it, it is neighborhood watch volunteers have a legal right to carry arms if they chose to.

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In some areas where police presence is minimal, such groups have a different role than in an urban area with rapid police response.

In Oregon, the Citizens Against Crime patrol is performing essentially DIY Law Enforcement.

Should it be done?

The great appeal to the concept of neighborhood watches is that they can incorporate everyone on the block. From the twelve year old girl who sees something out of place to the 92-year old retiree who notices someone breaking into a window of an unoccupied house across the street, all have a stake in keeping crime out of their neighborhood. Baring an immediate, life threatening, event, the best thing that the watch could do is call it in to local law enforcement and make a detailed observation of what they see including tag numbers, physical descriptions, etc.

You simply must remember that anything you do as a citizen exposes you to litigation and possible imprisonment. It's an awesome responsibility to carry a gun in any circumstance.

USAonWatch, perhaps the largest group of neighborhood watches, and received some funding from federal and local sources, states that they do "not advocate watch members taking any action when observing suspicious activity in their neighborhood. Community members only serve as the extra "eyes and ears" and should report their observations of suspicious activities to their local law enforcement. Trained law enforcement should be the only ones ever to take action; citizens should never try to take action on those observations. USAonWatch encourages all watch groups to register with our national database where multiple resources are made available to assist in the training and maintaining of Neighborhood Watch groups and its members."

However, your mileage, and watch may vary....

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October 2, 2013  •  12:47 PM
I don't know if it is legal or not to be armed when on neighborhood watch patrol. The deputy who oversees our neighborhood watch advises us not to be armed when patrolling the neighborhood in a group. When we are alone he advises us to conceal our weapons if we have a permit.

He says that open carry will prevent people in the neighborhood from contacting us when they have seen something or have information. Much like the sheriffs department we need the cooperation of our neighbors to effectively keep our neighborhood safe. People will talk to us when they are frightened of the bad guy. No one knows we are there because we travel on foot as opposed to a squad car in the front yard. I cut through the woods to visit a frightened neighbor. I don't want to get caught up in the issue either.
October 5, 2013  •  12:11 AM
As George Washington found out early in his career as Commander of the Continental Army, untrained volunteers are sometimes worse than the enemy when the situation is in doubt. Contrary to some of the movie and television scripts I've seen, criminals really don't like people to know what they are up to so just as in warfare (which it is in essence), trained and reliable reconnaissance assets can do much to help the Good Guys win. In fact their presence in the area serves to discourage crime because crooks don't like an audience. Zimmerman's situation was one where he was improperly trained as either a watcher or a shooter and that precipitated a totally unnecessary death. If a Neighborhood Watch program is going to allow it's participants to be armed (you volunteer, you go by their rules; just like the Boy Scouts), then it MUST demand that they be trained beyond the basic concealed-carry level. Also there must be protocols established within the organization governing what is and what is not actionable with "report, observe and await either instructions or the authorities" as the cardinal rule. Two fools went off into the Florida night that evening and one of them ended up dead; there is a whole lot of fault sticking to all the parties involved.