04/12/2012 05:38 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

In Defense of Neighborhood Watch

It's convenient to conflate George Zimmerman's reckless, arguably racist solo vigilantism with "neighborhood watch." But it would be a big mistake for potential crime victims to turn their backs on a powerful and positive means of achieving neighborhood safety -- while at the same time safeguarding others' civil liberties.

In the early nineties, over a dozen residents and visitors in the Hillcrest and North Park neighborhoods of San Diego were assaulted and viciously beaten. The M.O. was identical: A small band of skinhead wannabes would approach victims from behind, shout anti-gay and other bigoted epithets, and begin crushing heads and limbs with baseball bats and pipes. One of the victims, a 17-year-old boy, was beaten to death.

I was a deputy chief at the time, in charge of field operations. Despite flooding the area with additional patrols, the attacks continued. We called for a community meeting, hundreds showed up. The local beat cop ended a briefing on the crime series with the customary, "We need you to be our eyes and ears." I echoed the sentiment.

But from the back of the room came a loud, angry threat. "The bottom line, Chief, is either you guys catch these assholes or we will!"

My first impulse was to try to reason the young man out of his menacing stance, convince him of the risks: It's dangerous out there, you could wind up in the hospital, or worse. Also, it's too easy to violate the civil liberties of strangers, including those who just might be innocent. And, it's wrong to engage in crimes as bad if not worse than those you're trying to prevent.

But I caught myself, held my tongue.

I had suddenly realized the hypocrisy of what I was about to say. I knew that true community policing is the community policing itself; that the police in American belong to the people they serve, not the other way around; that the police are the community's "eyes and ears," not the other way around.

In fact, if there is a senior partner in the relationship between community and police it's the former. You want greater police accountability? Get involved. Push for citizen involvement in every aspect of police policies and practices, from civilian oversight to crime fighting.

I asked the community what we could do to help them put an end to the series.

We spent the rest of the evening planning a citizens' patrol. Upwards of 70 people signed on. The PD would provide instruction in planning, organizing, staffing, equipping, and coordinating the patrols. We would also present personal security training, and a primer on relevant criminal laws and civil liberties. The citizens themselves made it a point to develop a "contract" which would bind every member of the group to the standards implicit in the training.

It helped that there was no harebrained "stand your ground" law to contend with.

A night or two later we rolled out our huge black-and-white communications van, parked it outside a supermarket, and stocked it with a combination of cops and volunteers. Following a briefing, citizen patrol members fanned out in their own vehicles, two to a car, packing cellphones provided by the department.

A few nights later uniformed officers responded to a 911 call. Citizen patrollers had noticed three men who matched the descriptions of the assailants. The officers swooped in, detained the suspects, conferred with homicide detectives. The men were then cuffed and transported to jail. They were charged and later convicted of the assaults.

This kind of success has been replicated many times over. It would be a travesty for the "self proclaimed neighborhood watch leader" of Sanford, Fla., (or the sloppy police work that allowed him to go uncharged for so many weeks) to discourage communities from embracing a reasoned and responsible form of neighborhood watch.