More than a year and a half after Trayvon Martin was shot and killed by George Zimmerman, the city of Sanford is making major changes to its neighborhood watch program, including banning volunteers from carrying guns while on patrol, and forbidding them from pursuing anyone in their neighborhoods.
Sanford's new police chief, Cecil Smith, said the neighborhood watch program as it was operated while Zimmerman was part of it was dysfunctional and had no accountability.
"In this program, it is clearly stated that you will not pursue an individual," Smith explained. "In this new program, it clearly indicates that you will not carry a firearm when performing your duties as a neighborhood watch captain or participant."
Smith said when he took over as Sanford's chief of police in April, the neighborhood watch program Zimmerman was part of was still operating the same way it was when he shot and killed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin more than a year earlier.
Though Zimmerman was acquitted of second-degree murder in July, Smith said the program needed to be re-evaluated, so he stopped it completely until changes could be implemented.
"We've seen this happen already, where an individual was declaring that under the auspice of neighborhood watch, he was performing a duty that he wasn't," Smith explained, calling the previous state of the program dysfunctional, disorganized and disjointed.
"There was really no accountability. There was no true recognition. There were concerns with regards to training. There were concerns with how the program was being run," Smith continued. "We put a cease to the neighborhood watch program, essentially, in the manner it was in before, and what we're doing now is really, truly revamping the entire program, starting from scratch."
In addition to the ban on guns and following suspects, the revamped neighborhood watch program in Sanford Additionally, will include mandatory background checks. It will also include designated block captains who will have direct lines of communication with a new division of officers created to work with neighborhood watch members. Before the new rules, a civilian was the liaison between police and watch volunteers.
Smith said the new program is really just getting back to the basics of what neighborhood watch is supposed to be.
"Neighborhood watch is a very simple organization. It's about neighbors helping neighbors, talking to neighbors about ways to make their neighborhood safe. That's it," Smith said. "Again, do I think I'm going to make every person happy about our requirements that you don't be armed? I'm not going to make everyone happy, but not everyone has to be part of the program."
The police chief said he's excited about the changes, and plans to be on hand at a community meeting scheduled for Tuesday, Nov. 5, when residents are encouraged to come and voice their concerns.