Sanford, Fla., the town where George Zimmerman shot and killed Trayvon Martin while on neighborhood watch early last year, will enact a citywide ban on the possession and use of guns in neighborhood watch programs. Beginning at a November 5 community meeting, the rule will seek to prohibit another situation from ever occurring like the one that unfolded over a year ago and whose controversy still outrages some today.
Under Florida state law, citizens may legally carry a concealed weapon, provided they have the proper license to do so. Because of this, residents who choose to join the neighborhood watch program and fail to observe the new rule can only be removed from their position. No legal action can be taken, as the state law allows citizens to possess guns, even if the neighborhood watch program tells them guns are prohibited on the job.
"Neighborhood watch was always intended to be a program where you observe what is going on and report it to police,” Shannon Cordingly, spokeswoman for the Sanford Police Department, told Reuters. “In light of everything that has gone on, that's what we're really going to go back and push. That's what this program is and that's all it is.”
In effect, the neighborhood watch program is suffering something of a brand breakdown. Cordingly and other proponents for the program, which formally began in 1972, want to avoid the vigilantism purported by prosecutors in Zimmerman’s trial. The new rule comes as part of a larger mission to train watch volunteers and put them in better communication with Sanford police. "People in the community are nervous to join a group (neighborhood watch) that was tarnished in the media and got a bad image with everything that happened,” Cordingly said. “We really want to put those fears to rest and get the community going on the program.”
When Zimmerman’s case went to trial, the prosecution accused him of racially profiling a bright, innocent teenager, whose black hoodie allegedly frightened Zimmerman and caused him to hunt down and attack Martin proactively. Meanwhile, the jury upheld Zimmerman’s act as one of reactionary self-defense.
Zimmerman was acquitted in July for Martin’s February 2012 death. When he joined the neighborhood watch program in 2011, he was shown an instructional video and received a volunteer handbook. The new guidelines seek to expand the training program and provide a more robust handbook, along with direct police interaction with volunteers to monitor progress, Cordingly said.