Neighborhood watch groups across the United States, including in Brooklyn, are facing increased scrutiny following the death of an unarmed black teenager shot by a member of a Florida group.
“We’re not trying to apprehend, or chase, or follow. Crime is a police job,” said Terence Joseph, one of the founders of the Community Observation Patrol program in Brooklyn.
“We’ll just be the eyes and ears for the community.”
George Zimmerman, the neighborhood watch volunteer in Florida, appeared to take a different tactic. About a month ago, Trayvon Martin, 17, was walking back from a local store in Sanford, Fla., wearing a hoodie and carrying an iced tea in one hand and a pack of Skittles in the other, when Zimmerman shot him after a brief altercation.
Zimmerman said that he was acting in self-defense and that Martin was acting suspiciously.
The case – and the hoodie – has gained tremendous notoriety with many calling for Zimmerman’s arrest.
“A simple article of clothing has been transformed to a powerful symbol of protest for justice,” said Letitia James, a New York City councilwoman for Brooklyn’s 35th Council District, in an email.
The Florida incident has also shed light on neighborhood crime watch groups: Who are they and how are they organized and trained? And why was an armed man with no association to the police walking around his neighborhood to protect it?
“He [Zimmerman] wasn’t supposed to be chasing anybody. He had no business coming out of that car and chasing him,” said Joseph, the Brooklyn patrol group co-founder.
Joseph and fellow Brooklynite Terry Heinds have formed Community Observation Patrol, a neighborhood watch group of volunteers who live in the 67th precinct, which covers the Flatbush area. Heinds and Joseph said that an increase in neighborhood crime led them to start the group with 15 other neighbors.
“We won’t be armed. We’ll drive around in a car, and if we see something suspicious, we’ll call the police,” said Joseph.
They were, in part, inspired by Shomrim, a licensed organization of volunteer Jewish civilian patrols, which have been set up in Hasidic neighborhoods in the U.S. to combat crimes and anti-Semitic attacks. Shomrim in Hebrew means watchers or guards.
“You see it [a crime], and you report it, and you maintain a safe distance,” Heinds said.
Jay Ruiz is another Brooklynite, who decided to tackle crime in his neighborhood of Park Slope. Ruiz founded the Brooklyn Bike Patrol, a group of men who accompany women home from subway stops.
“All my guys have vowed to protect women we walk like if we’re walking home our mother or our wives,” he explained. All the group’s volunteers have been vetted by the NYPD.
“In no way shape or form are we like what happened in Florida. We don’t carry guns, we don’t carry weapons at all,” said Ruiz.
Still, the story of Trayvon Martin rang a bell with Ruiz.
“When I first heard this story, I thought, ‘Oh my god,’ because I’m pretty gung-ho when I protect someone,’” said Ruiz. “It really made me think what would happen if I was walking home and someone attacked us… no one can answer that until something like that happens.”
Additonal reporting by Maru Opabola and Frank Runyeon.