Confronting suspicious people not a neighborhood watch duty, police say

Richard Williams knows his Neighborhood Watch duties don’t come with a sheriff’s badge or a car with flashing blue lights.


As the organizer of the Pine Heights Neighborhood Watch, Williams’ responsibility is limited to staying alert of suspicious activity and reporting it to police dispatchers. The rest he leaves to the professionals.

“I’m just a citizen like everybody else. That’s what you’ve got to keep in mind,” Williams said. “You are not the police.”

Without taking dangerous situations into their own hands, ordinary residents in Pine Heights have helped authorities curb drug activity in the south Augusta blocks off Lumpkin Road near Mike Padgett Highway.

Williams said monitoring crime from afar was an important technique that Florida Neighborhood Watch volunteer George Zimmerman forgot when he shot and killed Trayvon Martin, a teenager said to have been walking suspiciously and wearing a hoodie.

“That guy handled it exactly opposite the way he should have,” Williams said.

Richmond County Deputy Wendell Johnson, the coordinator of the county’s Neighborhood Watch programs, said that authorities depend on the extra sets of eyes and ears but that crime watch participants shouldn’t try to act as police. There’s not a problem with tracking where a suspicious person goes, but a watch volunteer should never get close enough to engage the person.
“Their job is to observe and report suspicious activity but never confront someone who they deem suspicious,” Johnson said.

Authorities do not recommend against crime watchers arming themselves, but said they should focus on being alert of suspicious people and vehicles and signs of crime such as barking dogs and broken glass, he said.

“Their safety is No. 1,” he said. “We don’t want anybody getting hurt because it is a voluntary position.”

Joe Mabery volunteers as a block captain for an association of nine subdivisions in west Augusta off Pleasant Home Road that coordinates a Neighborhood Watch. He checks on houses when residents leave town and investigates suspicious noises, sometimes carrying a 9 mm pistol, but adds that he would never initiate gunfire.

“Never, ever engage,” Mabery said. “It’s none of my business.”