The Ghost of George Zimmerman Haunts a Gun Debate in Sanford, Florida

The community where Trayvon Martin was shot 20 months ago gathered for a loaded debate on gun rules for Neighborhood Watch volunteers. Yet Zimmerman wasn't mentioned once.

His name was not uttered during official proceedings, nor that of the 17-year-old boy whose life he took on a dark, rainy evening 20 months ago.

Yet the shadow of George Zimmerman, and lessons learned from his February 2012 shooting of Trayvon Martin, loomed large as members of the Florida community where the incident took place met with police chief Cecil E.Smith last night to help set their broken Neighborhood Watch operation back on the tracks.

Part of an ongoing crime-fighting overhaul being led by Smith, who came to the post seven months ago after his predecessor was fired for mishandling the Zimmerman case, the revamping of Sanford’s Neighborhood Watch is heavy with symbolism even if the chief would prefer it not to be so.

“When people hear the term ‘Neighborhood Watch captain,’ I think they just think of George Zimmerman straight away,” says Patti Parker, herself a Neighborhood Watch captain, chatting in a hallway after the meeting at Sanford City Hall. “But we need to move past that, move forward. George Zimmerman doesn’t define Neighborhood Watch.”

Were this any other city in America, a meeting between residents and police to discuss a parochial crime-busting initiative would pass as unremarkable. “But we’ve been in the spotlight for such a long time because of this case, that it seems like someone only has to trip over a curb and bump their head in this city and it’s back on us all over again,” laments Smith, speaking prior to the meeting.

On this initiative, the spotlight has shone all the brighter because of Smith’s decision to confront one of the most volatile issues inherent in the Trayvon Martin tragedy: the right to bear arms.

Whereas Zimmerman carried a pistol, from which he fired a bullet through Martin’s heart during a fight that began after he wrongly deemed the black teen to be “up to no good” and followed him, Smith’s Neighborhood Watch volunteers will be encouraged to leave their firearms at home.

The chief has backed off a plan to issue an outright ban on volunteers carrying guns, mindful of the potential legal backlash and that he would have been “essentially pissing people off.” His new instructions are carefully worded.

“It doesn’t say you can carry a firearm and it doesn’t say you can’t. We’re not banning firearms. We’re telling people that you should not—not ‘shall not’—be armed when you’re performing as a Neighborhood Watch block captain,” he explains. “Neighborhood Watch is built on the principal of ‘Observe, identify, and notify the police if you see something suspicious.’ You don’t chase someone down, you don’t confront. You call us and we’ll do that.”

Neighborhood Watch volunteers will be required to undergo criminal background checks and formal training, and indemnify Sanford PD against claims for injuries. Citizens on Patrol—a step up from Neighborhood Watch that utilizes civilian, uniformed volunteers to complement the city’s 120 paid police officers—will expressly ban gun owners from carrying weapons while on duty.

“I would prefer to do this without so much attention, but people are talking about the ‘need for protection’ and they’re not realizing that in actually having a conversation you can get just as much done as walking around with a gun on your hip,” said Smith.

For Charles Edwards, a licensed gun owner, the idea of leaving his weapon at home does not sit comfortably. His home was burglarized last year. He attended Tuesday night’s meeting to learn more, but is still undecided over whether to volunteer. “Quite honestly, if I go out in a protective capacity, I’m going to want to carry my gun. Without that, I probably wouldn’t be inclined to go out at night,” he admits.

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He does not see racial divisions in Sanford as a problematic issue, so much as the political issue of “gun owners versus non-gun owners.”

“I’m not gun-happy—the last thing I’m going to do is shoot anyone. But after the Trayvon Martin case, there’s a lot of people now who think ‘Hey, if we’re being attacked, we’ve got a right to defend ourselves with lethal force’ regardless of who initiated the situation.’”

Florida Carry, a group that advocates for Second Amendment and self-defense rights, feels that even discouraging licensed gun owners from carrying while serving on Neighborhood Watch is “irresponsible.” Volunteers are more vulnerable to becoming targets of criminal aggression—and therefore more in need of armed protection, believes Sean Caranna, its executive director.

Of around 90,000 Neighborhood Watch groups in America, less than half are formally registered with the National Sheriff’s Association, the body that funded the program in 1972 to act as extra eyes and ears for official law enforcers. Without oversight and formal structure, rules vary from group to group—if there are rules at all.

When Smith took up his post in April, he was shocked to find just four Neighborhood Watch groups in existence in Sanford, a city of 54,000 residents.

Wanda Chandler, a middle-aged mom and Neighborhood Watch block captain, has around 250 households in her group, which began informally eight or so years ago amid residents’ concerns over feral dogs eating people’s pet cats. Today’s issues are mostly about homes being burglarized, property vandalism, and drugs.

“The Trayvon case was a collision between people of different mindsets and different cultures. It was a tragedy. By doing something proactive now to help our communities, we can bring something positive out of it and we don’t need to be armed to do it,” she says.

On the night Trayvon Martin was killed, he was walking to his father’s house, in the same gated community as Zimmerman lived. Zimmerman, touted by prosecutors at trial as a “wannabe cop” and vigilante, but by the defense as a community guardian, followed the boy suspecting that he could be a burglar.

The case provoked national debate and controversy over guns, race and the right to self-defense, and highlighted what Smith describes as having been a “broken and dysfunctional” police department. The initial decision by his predecessor not to charge Zimmerman brought outcry, and exacerbated perceptions of police racism. Zimmerman was ultimately tried for murder, and acquitted.

A forthright but affable career cop who came to Sanford with a reputation for community bridge-building, Smith is healing relations through back-to-basics policing.

He makes officers get out more, and has won respect for his willingness to join them, knocking on residents’ doors to introduce himself and forming new community partnerships to restore respect between the department and those it serves.

“It wasn’t there before. Is that a failure in the police department? Yes. But it’s also a failure of the community because we needed to reach out and talk to each other,” he says.

Ironically, since improving communications, he has seen an uptick in the city’s crime statistics this year because—he believes—residents are more inclined to help police and better empowered to report incidents. In seven months, he jokes, his hair and mustache have turned from black to grey, but he is encouraged by the reaction he is seeing to his efforts.

“There has been that disconnection not just with the black community but in the white community, in the Hispanic community, in the Asian community,” he says. “We have become a society of texters and Tweeters and Facebookers…What we are not good at is people being on the front porch talking about the things that are going on in their community. It’s important to get back to what’s old, get back to knowing ‘Who’s my neighbor?’”

Invoking a character from Bewitched, notorious for her nosiness, he urged residents: “We’re asking you to be Alice Kravitz…She knew it, she talked about it, she worked it. And she worked it without having a firearm.”