Police in the Florida city where George Zimmerman shot and killed Trayvon Martin have backed off a plan to explicitly ban neighborhood watch volunteers from carrying guns while on duty.
Earlier this month, police in Sanford, Florida, announced new rules on how civilian patrols can operate in an attempt to revive the program's reputation, and was expected to announce Tuesday that neighborhood watch volunteers shouldn’t carry guns or follow suspects.
But now the police department has backtracked on those rules, saying that while it recommends that neighborhood watch volunteers not carry weapons, it won't formally prevent volunteers from doing so.
Sanford was thrust in the national spotlight last year when Zimmerman, a former neighborhood watch captain, gunned down Martin, an unarmed black teenager. Prosecutors accused Zimmerman of chasing down and killing Martin, but a jury acquitted him in July of murder.
In a phone interview on Wednesday, Sanford Police Chief Cecil Smith refused repeated requests to explain the reversal.
"That was the choice of the chief. That was my decision," Smith said. "What my thought is unimportant."
Smith introduced the new rules and a new handbook for the town's neighborhood watch program at a community meeting on Tuesday.
He said anyone who carries a gun can still participate in the neighborhood watch program, and no one will be asked if they have a concealed weapons permit. But block captains will be required to sign a waiver saying the city will relinquish liability if they decide to carry a weapon.
Last week, his spokesman told Reuters the new rules would explicitly state that residents acting under the authority of neighborhood watch may not carry a firearm or pursue someone they deem suspicious.
The Orlando Sentinel newspaper reported the ban upset gun advocates, but Smith told Reuters he felt no pressure to make the change.
Neighborhood watch consists of residents who volunteer to be the eyes and ears of police in their neighborhoods, and simply report to police any suspicious activity.
"We are strongly suggesting, strongly recommending, strongly urging people not to be armed in the performance of neighborhood watch," Smith said.
Neighborhood watch programs, formally organized in 1972 under the National Sheriffs' Association, began in reaction to the notorious 1964 murder of Catherine Susan "Kitty" Genovese.
Her cries for help during an attack outside her Queens apartment reportedly were ignored by neighbors, one of whom was famously quoted as saying she did not want to get involved.
The case prompted multiple psychological studies and resulted in the coining of the term “the bystander effect,” in which it was discovered that the greater the number of people witnessing a crime, the lower the likelihood is that one of those bystanders will report the crime.
Today's neighborhood groups often are untrained and unsupervised by police, vary in their dedication to the job, and remain unregistered with either the sheriffs' association or local police agencies.
Al Jazeera and wire services