What are the rights of local neighborhood watch members?

HARRISBURG, AR (KAIT) - The shooting death of a Florida teen by a neighborhood watch captain has garnered national attention and an investigation by the U.S. Justice Department.

Neighborhood watch captain George Zimmerman shot and killed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin who was walking home from a convenience store in Sanford, FL.

Neighborhood watch programs gained popularity in the 1960's as a result of an increase in burglaries nationwide, according to USAonWatch.org, the national neighborhood watch web site. The National Sheriff's Association created the National Neighborhood Watch Program in 1972.

The national spotlight on the case in Sanford poses a question as to how much authority neighborhood watch groups have when protecting their communities.

Retiree Eva Hooker said her quiet Lake Poinsett community she has lived in for the past 12 years wasn't always peaceful until residents decided to start a neighborhood watch program 10 years ago. "We have approximately 100 people in our association and everyone in the association is part of the crime watch."

"The first year that we started our crime watch, our sheriff had told us that they had busted five meth labs in the first year, and there had been a lot of shootings and wild rides and everything going on here, and gradually those have all stopped, and now it's a peaceful retirement community," Hooker said.

The Lake Poinsett Community Association member said her neighborhood has never experienced a situation like the one in Florida.

"It would be hard to say what you would do if something like this happened. It's a sad situation. I hope we never have to find out what we would do, but if you have to protect your home and your family, then you have to protect your home and family," said Hooker.

Poinsett County Sheriff's Deputy Kevin Molder said the Lake Poinsett Community Association is a model program, and believes crime watch programs do make a difference in communities.

"We couldn't do it without them. We depend on people in our community. We depend on people watching neighbor's houses."

However, Molder said residents should keep tabs on suspicious activity in their neighborhoods from the safety of their homes.

"In Arkansas, if you have a way to retreat from the threat, you take that opportunity. You don't engage someone or use a deadly weapon against someone when you have an opportunity to get away from them."

Region 8 News talked to District Prosecuting Attorney Scott Ellington about the investigation in Florida.

He said:

"If the facts are as they have been presented in the media, our office would be prosecuting the shooter for homicide."

Copyright 2012 KAIT. All rights reserved.