Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

Whose public safety? Trayvon Martin and Neighborhood Watch

By Jonathan Simon

The killing of teenager Trayvon Martin earlier this month, in Sanford Florida, has inflamed classic concerns about racism and criminal justice (especially in the South) as well as well as criticism of Florida's "stand your ground law"; a gun rights law that has expanded the circumstances under which self defense may be raised in many states. Less noted has been the role of Neighborhood Watch, a program launched by the National Association of Sheriffs in the 1970s with the objective of increasing the role of citizens in local crime prevention. Much beloved by criminologists and politicians alike, Neighborhood Watch is credited with reducing crime and improving police-citizen relations in many communities since the first trial program was run in Seattle in the mid-1970s. Trayvon Martin's death points to a darker side of Neighborhood Watch, one that may be unintended but predictable.

Trayvon Martin, a 17 year old African-American high school student from Miami was visiting with his father and his father’s fiancé in the racially diverse suburb of Orlando when the shooting took place. The apparent killer, George Zimmerman, a 28 year old of mixed Anglo-White/Latin American parentage had been very active in what was at best an informal neighborhood watch group (reports suggest he made over 50 calls to the police in the past several months). Zimmerman called the police to report suspicions about Trayvon (who was in fact walking home from a convenience store with a bag of candy and an ice tea while talking to his girlfriend on his cell phone). He apparently told police that Trayvon assaulted him and that he used his gun in self defense leading to a police decision not to arrest or charge Zimmerman in Martin’s death.

Public outrage built after the case received attention from the national media, including New York Time’s columnist Charles Blow last week (read it here). Demonstrations have sparked appointment of a special prosecutor in Florida and widespread concern about Zimmerman's use of his weapon. There has been widespread debate about whether the killing plausibly fits the criteria intended by the "stand your ground" laws.

As a crime prevention strategy, NW combines several potentially crime suppressive dynamics including facilitating quicker and more effective police response, deterring potential offenders through the observation of active and alert guardians, and altering the perceived opportunities for crime through routine activities like removing accumulating newspapers at the door of a home whose residents are away. The most recent meta-analysis of research on NW in both the US and the UK is modestly supportive of the proposition that neighborhood watch groups can reduce crime in their areas (with roughly half the communities studied showing some crime reduction and 12 of 18 empirical studies showing statistically significant differences between neighborhood watch covered areas and those without. According to the same study 27 percent of the British population and fully 40 percent of the U.S. population live in a neighborhood in which some form of NW operates (See Trevor Bennett, Katie Holloway, and David Farrington, "Does neighborhood watch reduce crime? A systematic review and meta-analysis," Journal of Experimental Criminology (2006) 2:437Y458; read it here but registration may be required).

As a social formation NW is also a vehicle for promoting law enforcement as a kind of citizenship project to which individual citizens are invited not only to support but to adopt. As such it is a crucial expression of what I have called “governing through crime” and what Garland calls the “culture of control." Historically citizens did participate in criminal justice as jurors, and as well as in the posse comitatus powers associated with citizen arrest. Neither approximates the distinctive political subjectivity modeled by NW. As a juror, the citizen sits as a peer of the accused, not the police. Even as a member of a posse the citizen acts as a peer of a fellow citizen who has raised the hue and cry against a trackable felon, a legal relations that goes back to Norman England and according to an article by renowned 20th century criminologist Sam Bass Warner persisted in the US as a significant part of law enforcement in rural areas as late as the 1940s (See, Sam Bass Warner, "Investigating the Law of Arrest, " Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology (1931-1951), Vol. 31, No. 1 (May - Jun., 1940), pp. 111-121, read it here but registration may be required). The Neighborhood Watch subject, in contrast, is mobilized to extend and supplement an existing police forces in urban and suburban areas. Rather than being limited to pursuit of a fleeing felon, whose criminality has been witnessed by a neighbor, the political subject mobilized by NW is directed to attend to quotidian world of micro disorders and to act in relationship with police rather than neighbors.

Considering the role of race in this encounter suggests the continuities and differences with the Jim Crow era. If mass incarceration is the New Jim Crow in Michelle Alexander’s formulation (See, Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow, it is because it is a legal structure that is also a racial order but not because it carries the same beliefs or mentalities about race on an either conscious or unconscious basis. Zimmerman is unlikely to turn out to be some postmodern equivalent of Mississippi's Milam brothers who tortured and murdered 14 year old Emmet Till, an African American teen visiting his Misissippi family from Chicago in 1955 (the incident helped galvanize northern public opinion for federal enforcement of civil rights laws in the South in the year after Brown v. Board of Education was decided, read the Wikipedia article here).

Zimmerman, whoever he turns out to be, is more likely to reflect a new kind of law and order subject constituted by programs like Neighborhood Watch, and other cultural expressions of the war on crime, than the traditional racialized vigilante or racist neighborhood lynch mob member of the sort that afflicted Mississippi or even parts of Brooklyn and Queens as late as the 1980s. Till’s banter with a married white woman in 1955 affronted the racialized Jim Crow honor code of the murderers. Zimmerman's lethal violence seems to have been activated by different set of nonetheless racialized codes which Trayvon traduced, one in which African American young men wearing hoodies are presumed to be cruising for criminal opportunities and should be prepared to perform their innocence visibly at all times (and not be distracted talking to their girlfriends). Zimmerman drove his SUV around his gated community, gun and cell phone at his side not to enforce a racial order in which miscegenation is the gravest moral breach (indeed he was the product of a mixed racial marriage), but to enforce a civil order anchored in fear of crime in which fitting a racialized risk profile is a breach that can cost a young man his life.

Cross-posted from Jonathan Simon’s blog Governing Through Crime.