The Herald, Sharon, Pa.

August 11, 2013

Pa. House bill would regulate neighborhood watch groups

By John Finnerty
CNHI Harrisburg Correspondent

HERMITAGE — The killing of Trayvon Martin was a wakeup call. But when state Rep. Louise Bishop’s grandson was accosted by a stranger who identified himself as a member of the neighborhood watch, the Philadelphia lawmaker knew she had to act.

Bishop said her 16-year-old grandson was heading toward a home where he was supposed to be dog-sitting. The stranger asked what the teen was doing and the ordered the boy to get into his vehicle. Bishop’s grandson escaped and in the weeks since, it’s still not clear whether the man who accosted the teen was a rogue member of a local watch or an impersonator trying to entice the boy into his car.

Either way, the episode illustrated clearly to Bishop the shortcomings in the informal, unregulated manner that neighborhood watch groups operate in Pennsylvania and across the country.

Bishop, a Democrat, is seeking support from other lawmakers for a bill that would require Neighborhood Watch groups to be certified by the Pennsylvania State Police. The legislation would also create new rules to create a standard form of identification for Neighborhood Watch volunteers. The identification would help other members of the community will be able to recognize that the patroller belongs to a state-recognized group, Bishop said.

Pennsylvania would not be the first state to tackle concerns about Neighborhood Watch volunteers in the wake of Martin’s shooting. Last year, lawmakers in Illinois approved legislation requiring “auxiliary police officers” to complete 400 hours of training. In the wake of that move, many of those auxiliary units folded because of the requirement.

There are more than 400 neighborhood watch groups in Pennsylvania, according to a registry on the website of the National Sheriff’s Association, which created the National Neighborhood Watch.

A spokesman for the association told National Public Radio that there are roughly 25,000 watch groups across the country. Because of the sheer number of groups, regulating their efforts would be difficult, Chris Tutko, director of the National Neighborhood Watch Association, told NPR.

Policy manuals created by the national Neighborhood Watch make it clear that George Zimmerman and the mysterious man who accosted Bishop’s grandson were not following recommended practices.

“Community members only serve as the extra ‘eyes and ears’ of law enforcement. They should report their observations of suspicious activities to law enforcement; however, citizens should never try to take action on those observations,” according to the Neighborhood Watch manual. “Trained law enforcement should be the only ones ever to take action based on observations of suspicious activities.”

Bishop’s bill would not only create a framework for oversight of watch groups, but it would also make it a crime to impersonate a watch volunteer.


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