Seven months into the job, Sanford police Chief Cecil Smith still is learning the lay of the land.
Last week, however, he learned something else: In the digital age, threats — real or imagined — to gun rights go viral faster than a speeding bullet.
Soon after he unveiled a no-gun policy for Neighborhood Watch volunteers, snipers lit up social media.
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Early last week, Smith retreated. The no-gun policy, he clarified, applied to the agency's Citizens on Patrol and not Neighborhood Watch. COP volunteers must leave their pieces at home. Not Neighborhood Watchers.
Of course, the shame of it all is the brief controversy obscured the significance of what Smith actually said — something he should never have had to say. But once he did, you couldn't help but wonder what took so long.
"We're recommending that no one is armed," he informed about 100 potential civilian crime preventers last week at Sanford City Hall. "It's about communications. It's not about firearms."
Nor has it ever been.
Look in the program's manual, issued by the National Sheriffs' Association — which launched Neighborhood Watch in 1972 to combat suburban and rural crime: Watchers, it says, "shall not carry weapons."
Smith's focus on Neighborhood Watch, of course, is a vestige of the tragic legacy of Trayvon Martin, the teenager shot and killed in February 2012 by Neighborhood Watch volunteer George Zimmerman. He coordinated the crime-prevention program at his Sanford townhome community.
It's why a bipartisan group of state senators wisely is looking at reforming Neighborhood Watch programs.
Part of the problem is too many, including a recent OrlandoSentinel.com poster, view Neighborhood Watch through Travis Bickle's "Taxi Driver" prism: "So why are the anti-gunners always interested in giving the criminals the advantage?"
It's why Smith recently reinforced watchers' role as the eyes and ears of the long arm of the law. Volunteers aren't deputized patrolmen, but Gladys Kravitz, the nosy neighbor from TV's "Bewitched."
Kravitz knew anytime a trash can was out of place in her neighborhood. And Kravitz wasn't strapped.
"Neighborhood Crime Watch groups are not vigilante forces," a Hernando Sheriff's Office handout declares.
Smith started conducting an assessment of police operations after taking over earlier this year for ousted Chief Bill Lee. A key discovery: Neighborhood Watch can be a Wild, Wild West, with individual organizations being poles apart on rules and accountability.
As The Washington Post recently reported, fewer than 33 percent of the nation's estimated 90,000 Neighborhood Watch groups are registered with the National Sheriffs' Association. Zimmerman's group, for example, wasn't registered.
Given that widespread autonomy, Smith had hoped with the proposed no-gun policy to bring much-needed uniformity to Sanford's crime-prevention groups, at least on that one vital point. It was a laudable try, if ultimately a fool's errand in the Gunshine State, and likely, as Kenneth Novak told the Post, a constitutional misfire.
"People participating in Neighborhood Watch enjoy all the legal protections under the Constitution as well as state and federal law," said Novak, a criminologist at the University of Missouri at Kansas City and a expert on watch programs. "That can include carrying a weapon."
Going forward, Sanford police will encourage Neighborhood Watchers to leave their heat holstered at home. And they'll hammer home this point: "Do not intercede or pursue," Smith said.
It's a point of emphasis of a bipartisan state Senate bill that would restrict Neighborhood Watch volunteers to watching and reporting suspicious activity. It would also compel police agencies to set guidelines for Neighborhood Watch programs. Lawmakers would be foolish not to embrace those changes.
Ensuring that Neighborhood Watch conforms to its critical mission as vigilant observers — not vigilantes — should galvanize anyone who longs to keep their communities safe from both burglars and Bickles.
And, yeah, I'm talking to you.
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