A community association and its members must understand the purpose of neighborhood watch programs.

The Copeland Group
July 1, 2013

This month we provide the following article, written by attorney Dan Zimberoff, a Partner with Barker Martin, P.S., a Pacific Northwest law firm focusing on community association law. Dan is a former US Navy commanding officer, combat veteran, and graduate of Top Gun. When outside the office, Dan enjoys coaching youth hockey, running, and spending time with his family outdoors in the Pacific Northwest.

Keeping a Watchful Eye...

- by Dan Zimberoff, Esq.

The George Zimmerman – Trayvon Martin murder trial, where a neighborhood watch captain shot and killed a Florida teen, is a stark reminder of the care a community association should take if it decides to implement a neighborhood watch program. As an attorney who provides legal counsel to many community associations, when asked to provide advice on the issue of neighborhood watch, my initial reply is “Don’t do it.”

To best eliminate tragedy and minimize legal liability, a community association should utilize the services of a trained, insured and bonded security company. However, I understand the economic realities homeowner associations face and realize professional security is impractical for many communities. If an association decides to take on this responsibility in-house, it should take the following steps:

1. Contact the local police department and ask its community support officer to meet with the association. In addition to offering general tips on establishing neighborhood watch programs, the police representative may give community-specific information and insights. The officer may speak to the community as a whole, providing anti-crime tips to assist individual homeowners.

2. Establish written guidelines for the program. Work with the association's attorney in coming up with these procedures. Among other items, the guidelines should emphasize minimizing conflict and confrontation.

3. Ensure program participants are not armed with weapons. A cell phone and camera ordinarily are the only equipment needed to conduct patrols.

4. Criminal background checks should be conducted on all program participants. Local police departments or state agencies offer inexpensive background options.

5. Contact the association's insurance company to verify insurance coverage for the program. Many community association insurers have risk management departments that offer helpful information on establishing neighborhood watch programs.

6. The association's board of directors or professional manager should review the program at set intervals to ensure it is being conducted in compliance with the written guidelines.

A community association and its members must understand the purpose of neighborhood watch programs. Volunteer homeowners are not intended to stop crime--that job is for the police. Watch programs are most successful in deterring crime by providing a watchful eye and vigilantly documenting suspicious behavior, not by interceding in crimes or suspicious behavior that is in the process of occurring. If a crime is being observed, the watch members should dial 9-1-1 and avoid confrontation.

Some associations may attempt to insulate themselves from liability by allowing a neighborhood watch program within its community, but not taking an active role. Though this tact may work for some communities, it may not completely protect a community association from being sued if a homeowner acts wrongfully.

As shown from the Zimmerman trial, we are reminded of the dangers and tragedy that can result from a misguided, untrained community association neighborhood watch program. Don’t let that happen to your association. Outsource; and if not, be cautious and smart!

The Copeland Group

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