Dallas crime watches are wary of gung-ho citizens who might go too far

By SELWYN CRAWFORD / Staff Writer / Dallas Morning News

Published: 01 April 2012 10:32 PM

The Florida crime watch captain who fatally shot an unarmed teenager had been taking college courses with an eye toward getting a job in law enforcement, had made repeated calls to 911 in the past few years and carried a weapon while patrolling his Sanford, Fla., neighborhood.

Dallas neighborhood watch leaders say people as gung-ho as George Zimmerman rarely publicly display that level of "wannabe cop" intensity, but they say they know folks like that are out there. And it makes them nervous.

"The vigilante mentality — I'm happy to say I don't run into very many people like that," said Paul Landfair, a longtime volunteer with the Woodbriar crime watch group in Far North Dallas. "I have my suspicions about a few people in the neighborhood who may be like that, but they don't come out and say it. But you'll hear them mutter things under their breath at meetings like, 'I know how I would handle that situation if it was me.'"

The controversial actions of Zimmerman, 28, have been under heavy scrutiny since he shot and killed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin last month as the African-American youth walked to his father's home. Zimmerman, whose father is white and whose mother is Peruvian, told police that he acted in self-defense. He has not been charged. But in the wake of a nationwide outcry over the shooting and the handling of the case, both Florida and federal authorities have launched investigations.

As the case plays out in the media, critics of Zimmerman have said a combination of wanting to take the law into his own hands and racial bias led him to track and shoot Martin. But his supporters contend that Zimmerman is neither a racist nor a police zealot. They say he just wanted to protect his neighborhood, which had been victimized by a rash of burglaries.

Those who participate in Dallas crime watch groups and in the legal profession say the Florida shooting is a tragic example of what can happen when well-meaning people go too far in an attempt to aid police.

'Call the professionals'

John Hazelton, the longtime crime watch chairman of the Royal Northaven Neighborhood Association, said he remembers a case in which a woman from a nearby neighborhood became irked by what she perceived as unchecked drug dealing in her community. She decided to play detective and followed a suspicious car to a park, then pulled in behind it to keep the driver from getting away.

"The fellow just started moving his car back very slowly and bumped her car a couple of times and was able to create some space," Hazelton said. "Then he just took off rather fast, but he could have had a weapon. … A lot of bad things could have happened. She came out very lucky."

Bob Reagan, a Dallas police officer turned lawyer, said that's why authorities want private citizens to stand down when they come across suspicious people.

"What I tell people is you're not getting paid to do this," said Reagan, who added that he didn't know enough about the Zimmerman case to determine whether the man acted improperly. "Some of these volunteers may be out there, and the more they're out there, the more they'll see something that just doesn't look right. Well, when they see that, they need to back off and call the professionals."

Reagan said that when he was an officer in the 1970s, he dealt with residents who "had the tendency to be overly aggressive" in wanting to apprehend bad guys. He said what was mostly talk occasionally would get out of hand and the resident would have to be warned. But, he said, law enforcement has to walk a fine line even then.

"The wannabe cops are all over," he said. "I've known a lot of people who got to be nuisances; they always called. And you don't want to discourage citizen involvement because you need them."

Sometimes the actions of a person out patrolling a neighborhood cross the line so far that they begin to border on criminal activity, authorities say.

Last November, Hazelton posted a warning on his neighborhood association's website about a man police said was driving a white truck with red and blue lights around North Dallas. Magnetic signs on the truck indicated he might have been part of a neighborhood patrol. Police advised anyone who came into contact with the man to call 911 and to exercise caution.

And in September 2010, a Richardson man who had amber and green flashing lights behind his front windshield and red and green mounted flashing lights in the back window was stopped by a fake cop.

Douglas Ervin — who contended that the lights on his car were legal — saw an unmarked car with red and blue flashing lights pull over another vehicle in Oak Lawn. Suspicious, Ervin followed the car with the lights until the impostor stopped and approached Ervin's car.

The man told Ervin that he was a U.S. marshal and shoved a gun in his face. When Ervin told the man that his own in-car video camera was taping the incident, the man fled.

Armed with a phone

Even those who in the past have been considered by some to be more pest than protector condemn vigilantism.

One Dallas resident who has been extremely involved in watching his community is Avi Adelman, who became famous — some say infamous — for his highly visible patrolling of his Lower Greenville-area neighborhood. He has been known to videotape drunks urinating in alleys and post their photos on his website, and he has at times been a thorn in the side of bar owners in the area.

In 2006, Adelman was ticketed by police for abuse of the 911 system. That ticket was eventually dismissed. {links here and here}

Adelman was once very active in community watch programs but says he's scaled back his efforts. And even when he was heavily involved in crime watch, Adelman says, he never considered himself a vigilante. He condemned Zimmerman's actions, saying that "the idea of shooting first and aiming later is wrong."

"I don't believe in vigilantism. I don't believe we should be going out with weapons and patrolling our neighborhoods," said Adelman, who said the most potent weapons he ever carried were a cellphone and a camera. "I'm not going out with a weapon because in Texas, everyone has one."

Adelman acknowledged, though, that he thinks it might be appropriate to intervene in certain circumstances.

"The whole idea of crime watch is to watch what is going on and report it," he said. "I will caveat that, though, and say if I see someone getting assaulted, I'm going to jump in. Within reason, it's OK, but I am not going to shoot the guy."

Adelman said he also would never racially profile anyone, something that critics of Zimmerman have accused him of doing. Dr. Elena Stepanova, a professor of social and behavioral sciences at Florida Gulf Coast University in Fort Myers, has done extensive research on profiling and has closely followed the Zimmerman-Martin case.

She said that some neighborhood watch participants do unintentionally profile and that research shows that unarmed blacks, such as Martin, are far more likely than unarmed whites to be killed by police or well-meaning citizens.

"I think we are talking about these cultural associations that people have between African-Americans and guns, African-Americans and criminal behavior," she said. "People think it's only police officers who have these associations. But that's not true. Regular people on the street have these same associations.

"These stereotypes we have in America, they poison people," she added. "Zimmerman's case just got a lot of publicity. But I'm sure there have been other cases where innocent lives were lost because of ethnicity."

By Avi S. Adelman under Crimewatch , Safe streets