Trayvon Martin

03.22.12

Did Trayvon Shooter Abuse 911?

Was George Zimmerman just a vigilant neighbor, or something more perilous? Matthew DeLuca examines the dozens of calls to police Zimmerman made in the years before he shot Trayvon Martin.

A stray dog, open garage doors, unfamiliar vehicles … and, on a rainy winter night, one black male teenager wearing “dark-gray hoodie, jeans or sweatpants.”

Whatever his complaint, George Zimmerman seemed quick to call the police. Over the course of nearly eight years, Zimmerman made at least 46 911 and non-emergency calls (PDF) to the police department in Sanford, Florida, culminating in the two fateful calls he made Feb. 26, shortly before he confronted and then fatally shot 17-year-old Trayvon Martin.

Taken together, the police log of Zimmerman’s calls paint a picture of an extremely vigilant neighbor. The police department has released audio recordings from six of the most recent calls, but the audio of calls older than six months is destroyed, according to the Seminole County sheriff’s office.

Outrage over the shooting has continued to grow in recent days. On Wednesday, Martin’s family traveled to New York City to join a protest in Union Square that drew hundreds of demonstrators. On Thursday, Sanford Police Chief Bill Lee, Jr., stepped down temporarily in the hope of “restoring some semblance of calm to this city,” he said at a press conference.

For the most part, the nature of Zimmerman’s calls make him sound more like a curmudgeon than a vigilante protecting the Retreat at Twin Lakes, the 260-unit gated community where he lived and where he shot Martin.

In November 2006, according to the log, Zimmerman placed a non-911 call to report a late model red Toyota pickup “driving around the neighborhood” and the apartment complex for several minutes.

In June 2009, he called to report that people were misbehaving in the community-pool area, jumping over the fence and trashing the bathroom.

In October 2010,  he called to report a woman in a blue Jeep Grand Cherokee who appeared to be yelling at elderly passengers.

But starting in 2011, Zimmerman’s calls increasingly focused on what he considered “suspicious” characters walking around the neighborhood—almost all of whom were young black males.

On April 22, 2011, Zimmerman called to report a black male about “7-9” years old, four feet tall, with a “skinny build” and short black hair. There is no indication in the police report of the reason for Zimmerman’s suspicion of the boy.

On Aug. 3 of last year, Zimmerman reported a black male who he believed was “involved in recent” burglaries in the neighborhood.

And on Oct. 1 he reported two black male suspects “20-30” years old, in a white Chevrolet Impala. He told police he did “not recognize” the men or their vehicle and that he was concerned because of the recent burglaries.

Despite the frequency of his calls to the police, Zimmerman had only become a member of the neighborhood watch in September 2011. In fact, Twin Lakes’ neighborhood watch itself did not exist before then, according to Wendy Dorival, volunteer coordinator for the Sanford Police Department.

Dorival first met with Twin Lakes residents to give a neighborhood-watch presentation on the evening of Sept. 22. The meeting was initiated by a call from Zimmerman, she said.

“He was the one who contacted me at first to get it started there,” Dorival said.

Dorival recalled that about two dozen residents showed up to hear her speak about the responsibilities of neighborhood-watch volunteers.

“There were about three or four burglaries that had happened that people were upset about, and that’s what initiated me to get out there for them to start a neighborhood watch,” Dorival said.

Part of the instruction Dorival gives new volunteers, she said, includes when to call 911 and when to call non-emergency numbers. Both lines go to the same operator, Dorival told the Daily Beast, but the different numbers allow the operator to triage calls.

“I basically tell them you call non-emergency dispatch if you come home after work and you notice somebody took a bike off your porch,” Dorival said. “A 911 call is when there is a crime in progress. If someone’s life or property is in danger, you call 911.”

At the end of the Dorival’s presentation, she invited residents to choose a neighborhood-watch leader.

“I went through all the roles and responsibilities for neighborhood watch and I said, ‘Now it’s time to choose your community leader,” Dorival said. “And pretty much the people chose George Zimmerman as the coordinator.”

At the end of the meeting, Dorival said, she handed out her business card and told residents to call her if they had any questions. She never received any calls, she said.

“There is no set way of how you run your neighborhood watch,” Dorival said. “It’s up to the community how to run it.”

According to the instructional materials prepared by the Sanford police department, one of Zimmerman’s responsibilities as neighborhood watch coordinator was to act as a liaison between the Sanford police and the neighborhood-watch volunteers. A police slideshow (PDF) Dorival screened at her presentation says the neighborhood watch is “NOT the vigilante police.”

‘A 911 call is when there is a crime in progress. If someone’s life or property is in danger, you call 911.’

Dorival said she only heard from Zimmerman once after the September meeting, when he sent her an email regarding a burglary suspect. She said she has not been contacted by anyone from the Retreat at Twin Lakes neighborhood watch since Martin was shot.

Multiple attempts by The Daily Beast to reach Zimmerman were unsuccessful.

At least one community resident has come to Zimmerman’s defense. Frank Taaffe, who attended Dorival’s presentation and said he was also a member of the neighborhood watch, has told reporters that there were eight burglaries in the neighborhood in the 15 months before Martin’s death. He said Zimmerman had called the police several weeks before he shot Martin to report a burglary at Taaffe’s house he came upon during a “nightly patrol."

“Young black males have been seen in, you know, burglaries here. They’ve been seen with drug dealings here and the Sanford police is well aware of everything,” Taaffe told the Orlando Sentinel.

“I mean they’ve been called out here on numerous occasions. And I believe it was just the perfect storm.”

A review of police records confirms Taaffe’s account of crimes in the neighborhood. According to the Miami Herald, police were called to Twin Lakes 402 times in the 13 months before Martin’s death. According to the Herald’s review of police records, the community experienced eight burglaries, nine thefts, and a shooting over that period.

Attempts to reach Taaffe were unsuccessful. In response to a request from the Daily Beast, the Seminole County sheriffs’ office stated that it had no record of any 911 or nonemergency calls made by Taaffe.

The National Sheriffs’ Association, which started the neighborhood-watch program in 1972, released a statement saying that Twin Lakes’ neighborhood-watch program was not one of the approximately 25,000 programs that have registered with the association nationwide. But that doesn’t mean the program was not legitimate, said Chris Tutko, director of the NSA’s neighborhood-watch program.

Tutko said citizens usually coordinate with the local police department, as Zimmerman did, and that the police may then take a role in instructing volunteers.

But Tutko said the NSA discourages the carrying of weapons “to the point of saying you just can’t do it.”

“This is an example of what can happen if you don’t continually tell the neighborhood watch ‘no altercations,’” Tutko said, adding that it isn’t the job of volunteers to stop crimes. “You make your phone call and then you make the best decisions you can.”