No rule in Charlotte prohibits neighborhood watch volunteers from carrying weapons as long as they are doing so in a lawful manner.
That would be a judgment call, said Craig Allen, a crime prevention officer with the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department. We dont advocate vigilantism. We say to arm yourself with knowledge and a cellphone.
The case of George Zimmerman the Sanford, Fla., neighborhood watch volunteer acquitted Saturday night in the fatal shooting of an unarmed teenager has brought renewed attention to neighborhood watch programs across the nation.
They are usually an informal collection of residents who come together to keep an eye out for crime in their communities. It may be as passive as taking care of a neighbors house while its unoccupied or a more organized effort with members setting up systematic patrol routes.
An exact count of such programs in Charlotte-Mecklenburg was not available. But Capt. Chuck Henson, the Hickory Grove district captain who oversees that areas neighborhood watch program, estimated there are 100 organized neighborhoods within his district alone.
If we didnt have that community involvement, our job would be tenfold much harder, he said.
The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police website says a neighborhood watch program is residents in the community working with the police department to reduce crime and to improve the quality of life.
It states that such a program is not a vigilante force working outside the normal procedures of law enforcement or a program designed for participants to take personal risks to prevent crime.
Rob Willis, neighborhood watch coordinator for Plaza Midwood, said he forbids watch participants in his area to carry weapons while patrolling.
I have dismissed people who wanted to be more aggressive in crime watch than we wanted to be, he said.
North Carolina has a Stand Your Ground self-defense law similar to the Florida statute that Zimmerman used to justify using deadly force against 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. It extends protection to those acting in self-defense.
UNC Chapel Hill Professor of Public Law and Government John Rubin, who is an expert on Stand Your Ground laws, said after Florida passed its version of Stand Your Ground, many states followed suit by adopting similar laws.
But Rubin said the North Carolina law that passed in 2011 did not significantly alter self-defense laws that were already in place by state appellate courts.
The legislation did not change the basic requirement that a person has a right to use force if theres a reasonable belief of endangerment, he said.
In Charlotte-Mecklenburg, Henson said watch participants are educated on the states Stand Your Ground law.
He stressed the police department does not encourage people to be armed in public.
Its a program where a neighbor helps a neighbor, he said. It gets the neighborhood involved.
Learning the rules
When volunteers form a neighborhood watch in Charlotte, they get a rundown of the rules from police officials.
Be observant. Call the police when needed. Get to know your neighbors.
Neighborhood watch programs in Charlotte-Mecklenburg are set up as a hierarchy, composed of local members who report to a block captain. A coordinator oversees a region of neighborhoods that are under the jurisdiction of a law enforcement official.
Allen said police officials meet with those interested in starting a program, and a training session is held to educate members on confrontation tips, observation strategies and crime reporting procedures. Division officers hold annual meetings with participants, and its up to members to decide how often to meet on their own.
Willis said since members of the Plaza Midwood watch group began patrol rounds in 2008, the area has seen a 65 percent drop in crime. He said he believes the neighborhood watch group has played a major role.
Willis added the biggest hurdle members in his watch have faced is not being afraid to call 911 when they witness suspicious activity. He said in a one-month period he called 911 30 times and that he knows the first names of emergency dispatchers and police officers.
Allen said the neighborhood watch groups perform a valuable service.
Its neighbors watching out for neighbors, Allen said. Theyre the extra eyes and ears out in their own community.
Crampton: 704-358-5112; Twitter: @liz_crampton
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