SEBRING - The chairman of the Greater Kenilworth Neighborhood Watch program said it's already quite a bit of work to get folks involved in helping keep their neighborhood safe and free of crime.
For those involved in one of 58 Neighborhood Watch programs active in Highlands County, or one of 80 programs registered, a state bill that was passed Monday would make several tweaks to the "Stand Your Ground" self-defense law and will also require training programs for neighborhood-watch participants, possibly causing a more concise training process.
The Senate Criminal Justice Committee passed the bipartisan bill that would require the state Department of Law Enforcement to develop a training curriculum for those involved in neighborhood crime-watch programs and require local law enforcement agencies to use the curriculum when training watch program participants.
The coordinator for the Neighborhood Watch in Kenilworth, which includes homes on roads connected to Kenilworth Boulevard, said Monday although he doesn't yet know much about the bill, he didn't feel it would help his program. He said the 9-year-old watch program averages about 15 people and doesn't involve patrols, just phone calls to the Highlands County Sheriff's Office or Sebring Police Department when something suspicious is observed.
Although the chairman, who asked his name not be used because of his position as Watch coordinator, said his opinion on it was "at the moment, negative."
"I tell you, it's already a lot of work to do these things," said the chairman, who's over 60 and retired. "It's difficult to say what impact it (the measure) will have. I would have to be skeptical until I get more feedback."
Nell Hays, public information officer for the Highlands County Sheriff's Office, said currently there is a three-meeting training process for Watch members that was established at least 14 years ago. During those meetings, led by Hays, qualifications,responsibilities, concepts, set-up logistics and block captains, a telephone tree and communications and security, burglary prevention, reporting suspicious activities and other observation skills are discussed.
Hays said generally, if there is a homeowners' association, the Watch is set up through it and the agenda for training or meetings is formulated. She said some communities meet once per year, some, like Spring Lake, meet once per month. She said since the bill was just passed, firm plans on how to work with it hasn't yet been set.
"I'll suggest to the sheriff that we see the FDLE's training curriculum, see how it's set up and see what we need to add. I don't think we'll have to take anything out of our training," she said. "The most important thing that I stress to get to the members of Neighborhood Watches is that they're members of a 'Neighborhood Watch,' not 'Neighborhood Intervention.'"
Hays said in Highlands County, the sheriff's office works with the city of Sebring in the Kenilworth Watch, she isn't aware of programs in the Lake Placid town limits and Avon Park has one Watch at the recently-annexed Crystal Lake, led by sheriff's office Commander Jason Lister and Sgt. Brian Robinson.
Mary Meisenheimer, chairwoman of the Sylvan Shores Neighborhood Watch, said the sheriff's office currently has one training meeting per year in the 55-and-over community just outside of Lake Placid. The Watch has about 35 members and she said she's worried the new training requirement may make it harder to get folks to commit.
"She (Hays) gives us advice on what to watch for and if suspicious activities were spotted to call the sheriff's office. But it's hard to get everyone to come out (to meetings); they're older crime-watch members."
In the unincorporated Spring Lake community just southeast of Sebring, the Watch coordinator, who also asked his name not be used, said his community has no patrols and relies on phone calls to curb crime. He said Monday he didn't know details of the new Justice Committee measure and couldn't gauge its impact on the program and as many as 60 members - depending on the time of year - until he spoke with Hays.
"She has not yet informed me of any additional training as long as we're not doing patrols," he said.
Hays said when starting all Neighborhood Watches are provided with training manuals supplied by the National Neighborhood Watch Institute on how to run and maintain strong, cohesive programs. The National Sheriffs' Association in Alexandria, Va., administers the National Neighborhood Watch-USAonWatch Program.
Fred Wilson, National Neighborhood Watch director of operations, said it isn't common to have bills requiring law enforcement training curriculums for Watches, but he was glad to hear of Florida's.
"I think it gets some standardizing and consistency across the board and it's a good first step in making sure we have viable Neighborhood Watches to assist law enforcement," he said. As of 2012, more than 25,000 Neighborhood Watch groups across the United States are currently in the registry.
The Senate Criminal Justice Committee bill was proposed by David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs and Senate Minority Leader Chris Smith, D-Fort Lauderdale, and comes following the acquittal of Sanford Watch volunteer George Zimmerman in the 2012 shooting death of teenager Trayvon Martin.