Police in Sanford, Fla., were back in the headlines recently when they announced that they were changing the rules so that neighborhood watch patrols would not carry guns. But now the police chief is backtracking.
After Sanford was thrust into the media spotlight following George Zimmerman’s slaying of unarmed teen Trayvon Martin while Zimmerman was purportedly carrying out his neighborhood watch duties, it prompted a national debate about the proper role of these civilian patrols.
Sanford police were attempting to revive the reputation of the controversial program by announcing new rules stating neighborhood watch volunteers should not carry guns or follow suspects.
But Sanford police chief Cecil Smith is backing down- after reportedly upsetting gun advocates. Smith now says that while the department recommends that neighborhood watch volunteers not carry weapons, it won’t formally prevent them from doing so.
In a phone interview on Wednesday with Al-Jazeera America, Smith refused repeated requests to explain the reversal.
“That was the choice of the chief. That was my decision,” Smith said. “What my thought is unimportant.”
The new rules were released at a community meeting on Tuesday, along with a new handbook for the town’s neighborhood watch program.
Smith said anyone who carries a gun can still participate in the neighborhood watch program, and no one will be asked if they have a concealed weapons permit. But he said the police will require block captains to sign a waiver saying the city will relinquish liability if they decide to carry weapons.
Though it was reported in the media that Smith’s earlier decision to ban guns upset advocates, the chief said he felt no pressure to make the change.
“We are strongly suggesting, strongly recommending, strongly urging people not to be armed in the performance of neighborhood watch,” Smith said.