FAIRFIELD COUNTY, Conn. – The deadly shooting of a black teenager by a community block watch leader in Florida last month has stirred nationwide civil rights protests. But a similar tragedy is unlikely in Fairfield County, say police and Neighborhood Watch leaders.
“I don’t believe anything like that could happen in Fairfield County,” Norwalk Police Chief Harry Rilling said. “It’s when you put people out on the street who feel they have some kind of enforcement authority that those kinds of tragedies occur."
Connecticut is not one of the 23 states with a “Stand Your Ground” law that allows citizens to use deadly force even outside their homes when feeling threatened or without requiring retreat. In 2005, Florida was the first state to explicitly expand a person's right to use deadly force for self-defense.
Neighborhood Watch programs in Fairfield County encourage residents to report suspicious activity, but people are “never, ever expected to act as vigilantes,” said Rilling.
“We don’t want any citizen taking matters in their own hands, and certainly never using weapons,” he said. “Neighborhood Watch is for people to be the eyes and ears for police. But we make it clear citizens should never go out and confront anyone.”
But that’s what happened in the killing of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Fla., when block watch captain George Zimmerman pursued the youth – who was returning home after buying candy for his brother — even after being advised by a 911 operator to back off.
Zimmerman’s pursuit and the failure by police to arrest him sparked a raging national debate over the “Stand Your Ground” law.
“If an African-American man is walking in a white neighborhood and not bothering anyone, that is not a reason to call police. If that same person is peering into a house or car windows, regardless of race, people should call us right away,” Rilling said.
Despite accusations by minorities throughout Fairfield County that police use racial profiling to target African Americans and other minorities driving through white communities, Neighborhood Watch leaders say a person’s race should not be considered.
“It’s not about racial profiling. It’s about the behavior, not the person’s skin color people should be looking at,” said Fairfield Police Lt. James Perez.
Perez, head of the department’s Special Services Unit, said Fairfield has one of the most extensive Neighborhood Watch programs in the region. It has been “completely reorganized and reinvigorated” in the past few years.
“Our town was very active in Neighborhood Watch when the national program kicked off during the 1970s,” said Perez. “But as the years went on it faded away in many areas. Now, it’s very active again.”
Neighborhood Watch participants in Fairfield must attend five two-hour training sessions at the police department, Perez said. That training includes learning simple ways to prevent crime, such as locking doors, looking out for neighbors not at home and reporting suspicious activity to police.
Joan Keane, who has lived in the Greenfield Hill section of Fairfield for more than 40 years, said she became involved about three years ago after a rash of break-ins.
“When there is a string of burglaries, or a suspicious person or car spotted in the area, we alert people with emails that includes a description of the person or vehicle,” said Keane. “It’s important to get to know your neighbors.”
In urban areas such as South Norwalk, Ernest Dumas, founder and president of the South Main Street Neighborhood Association and a Neighborhood Watch leader, said the program is also being revitalized.
“We’re determined to get people more involved, the way they were in the 1990s,” said Dumas, a District B ward leader and member of the Democratic Town Committee. “We have gangs, drug dealing and speeding cars. People are scared, and Neighborhood Watch is a way to help police do their job.”
Dumas said that as an African American, the fatal shooting in Florida has touched him deeply. He said he does not care about a person’s race when they are “criminals destroying our neighborhoods."
“It doesn’t matter to me if a drug dealer or gang leader is white, black or Hispanic. I want them off the streets,” he said.
New Canaan Police Lt. Vincent DeMaio, head of investigative services, said his town’s Neighborhood Watch program was revived a few years ago after many burglaries occurred near the Stamford border.
“It’s always a good idea to have an active Neighborhood Watch program, but with the advent of cellphones and other technology, it has made these programs a little antiquated,” DeMaio said. “But people in a neighborhood understand the ebb and flow and know who belongs and doesn’t … even better than police.”