State laws just?

Published 5:00 am Wednesday, April 4, 2012

As the country continues to follow the developments in the investigation into the shooting death of Florida teen Treyvon Martin at the hands of neighborhood watch captain George Zimmerman, some questions have been raised challenging state laws and how civilian crime watch groups function.

At the center of the debate are issues with Florida’s “Stand Your Ground Law,” a piece of legislation some say could aid Zimmerman in getting away with a crime.

David Craig, coordinator for community-oriented policing for the Escambia County (Fla.) Sheriff’s Office, said what happened to Martin would have never occurred if Zimmerman had followed the rules set for professionally coordinated neighborhood watch groups, several of which he oversees as close by as Molino, Fla.

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“Theoretically, just like police training, (neighborhood watches) should be very similar nationwide,” Craig said. “There is really no relation between the way a neighborhood watch should function and what happened.”

Craig added civilians trained to run these watches are taught to never engage a suspect in any way.

“Specifically non-contact and non-intervention are two keys to any neighborhood watch group. No member should ever follow anyone, get out of their vehicle and make contact with them, should never even talk to any suspicious person.”

Craig said the Sheriff’s Office stresses neighborhood watches are structured to do just what the name implies – watch.

“One of the big mistakes people make, and often it ends with injury or loss of life, is they will go out on their front porch and say ‘I’m calling the cops on you,’ and there may be retribution then or later. Everything about letting people know that you’re concerned with their activities to the point that you are going to involve the police is tactically ineffective.”

At the center of the controversy in Florida is the state’s “Stand Your Ground Law,” a piece of legislation introduced during the Jeb Bush administration that takes laws that allow homeowners to defend themselves from an intruder a step further.

Craig said the biggest difference between Florida’s stand your ground law and other states’ so-called “castle” laws is that Florida’s law extends outside of a home, or dwelling and also provides for the protection of others in perceived danger.

“There used to be a retreat factor in Florida,” Craig said. “It doesn’t exist now. Our former ‘Castle Law’ dictated that if faced with a deadly threat and you had an opportunity to retreat, then you had to exercise that opportunity. If (you didn’t try to retreat) you just shot them that could easily be construed as manslaughter even if there was a threat there.”

Craig said “Stand Your Ground” eliminates the responsibility to attempt to retreat.

“Under the old ‘Castle Law,’ the only place you didn’t have to retreat was inside your home,” he said. “What they dropped was the castle portion of the law. They just knocked the walls down. Now ‘Stand Your Ground’ dictates that you don’t have to retreat anywhere in Florida, but you still have to be presented with a serious bodily harm threat or fear for your life. The only exception to that is you can actually act as a good Samaritan and use deadly force to protect someone else against serious bodily harm or death.”

In Alabama, Escambia County Sheriff Grover Smith said the retreat factor has also been removed from the state’s “Castle Law.”

“What they did, essentially, is removed the clause that you have to depart if you feel like you’re being threatened,” Smith said. “The bottom line is the law says if you can articulate a reason to a court that meets a reasonable standard that you were in fear of your life you can use whatever force you feel is necessary.”

Smith said any local problems that may arise from the “Castle Law” in situations similar to the Martin case have been largely squelched by the effectiveness of Escambia County neighborhood watch programs.

“We have set up several, but usually after a while they die down because, one, they are successful and the people that have been creating the issues and concerns are not around,” Smith said. “They usually don’t last long, but they are effective when they are there.”

Just as Craig stresses in Florida, Smith said the purpose of a neighborhood watch is to observe what is going on in the community in order to better inform law enforcement, not to take the law into the hands of civilians.

“Basically all they do is communicate with each other and we tell them how to communicate with us best,” he said.

Craig said training for neighborhood watch groups in Escambia County (Fla.) includes an in-depth program along with an optional three-day academy that gives civilians all of the tools they need to operate safely and effectively – hopefully eliminating the need to exercise the “Stand Your Ground Law” at all.

“What happened in Sanford could never happen in one of our neighborhood watches in Escambia County, unless somebody broke every single rule we teach them,” Craig said.