Burien Block Watch Members Advised to Watch, Listen, Call Police
The fatal Feb. 26 shooting of Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old African American, has not only heightened racial tensions and spurred a rush to judgment – it has also has raised questions about police guidelines for Block Watch members.
And, Burien Police Sgt. Henry McLauchlan told The B-Town Blog this week, Block Watch members are urged to avoid confrontations and risk getting somebody hurt. “Block Watch members are our eyes and ears, and should call us when they see something suspicious.”
As probably everyone knows by now, Martin was shot by George Zimmerman, 28, sometimes described as a “white Hispanic.” Zimmerman is a community Block Watch coordinator in his Florida community neighborhood.
After calling 911 to report that he was following someone walking in the neighborhood whose behavior was suspicious, Zimmerman ignored the dispatcher’s advice and continued to trail that person, who turned out to be Martin.
Zimmerman, who was legally carrying a concealed gun, told police that Martin turned on him and assaulted him. He said that during the struggle, he shot Martin in self-defense. Zimmerman has not been arrested, and a grand jury is now looking into the killing.
Although many facts in this case have yet to come to light, that didn’t stop Burien City Councilman Jack Block Jr. from wearing a hoodie – like Martin wore when he was shot – at the March 26 city council meeting to show solidarity with those calling “justice for Trayvon.”
This tragedy has raised questions locally, among both Block Watch members and others in the community, about the proper role of Block Watch members when they see suspicious activity in their neighborhoods.
Block Watch Training
“All the training and continuing education we provide for our Block Watch members is presented in a way to help them make their communities safer,” McLauchlan said. “We tell them they are the eyes and ears of the police, but we urge them to be very conscientious and safe when they are out keeping watch for their neighbors.
“The Block Watch program is very conservative when it comes to confronting suspicious persons. We suggest that the best approach is for them to simply ask a person unknown to a Block Watch member if they can help. By asking this question, the person of interest is put on notice that someone is aware of their activity and watching them.”
McLauchlan said this type of “unobtrusive question is also inoffensive if the ‘unknown’ is the new neighbor two houses down the street.”
Police also suggest that if an unknown, uninvited person knocks at their door, they should answer safely, perhaps from an upstairs window or through a locked front door, rather than not answer the door at all.
“By responding to the knock at the door the “potential would-be burglar” knows someone is home and doesn’t start looking for a way to get in to the ‘unoccupied’ victim’s home,” he said.
But, McLauchlan added, “At no time would we want anyone to confront somebody which results in someone getting hurt. Just be suspicious of everything and never ignore something out of place. They need to remember that Block Watch members are our eyes and ears, and call us when it looks like something is suspicious or a crime is taking place.”
Firearms Not Part of Block Watch Programs
He emphasized that the Burien Police Department “has never advocated that Block Watch members carry firearms even with a concealed weapon permit. Carrying firearms is not part of any Block Watch program anywhere that I am aware of.
“Legally carrying firearms is an individual choice, a very complex choice,” McLauchlan continued. “Our officers receive many, many hours of training on how and when lethal force is appropriate.
“Even with all the many hours of intense training, when appropriate force is used, the following investigation, legal proceedings and criticism that are required can be painful and leaves trained professionals drained. The nightmares an individual faces, even if the shooting is ‘justified,’ will be beyond comprehension.”
Basic Defense Tools
McLauchlan said the best defense for any person “is the basic tools we have always taught. It starts with the grey matter between their ears, engaging one’s brain.
“Once the brain is engaged, using ‘Knowledge,’ being ‘Prepared,’ being ‘Aware,’ and ‘Avoiding’ potential trouble are the key elements to keeping you, your family and neighbors safe,” he continued.
“We want to help create a situation that makes the community safer with heightened awareness and visibility, the basic foundation of Block Watch programs everywhere.”
Credible Criminal Investigations
As for public reaction to the fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin, McLauchlan said “anytime a life is lost, for whatever reason, it’s a tragedy.
But “credible investigations require time to complete. Law enforcement follows the evidence which leads investigators to a determination of the entire event,” he continued. “With that determination, findings and future action can be made based on facts, not speculation or the court of public opinion.
“We need to continue working together to keep our communities and our city a safe place to live, work and raise kids.”