Watching, From a Safe Distance : After member is slain, Neighborhood Watch is reminded to avoid risk

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The fatal shooting of a Neighborhood Watch block captain in Winnetka on Monday has left that close-knit west San Fernando Valley community in turmoil. But to allow the killing to dampen enthusiasm for the Los Angeles Neighborhood Watch system, which had operated with little difficulty for 20 years, would only compound the tragedy.

Across the United States, Neighborhood Watch groups have become an important symbol, a demonstration of the ability of people to organize, take action and fight back against crime. Now, many Watch groups are in operation, acting as extensions of the eyes and ears of the police, and they have become increasingly ambitious. No longer do members merely keep a lookout from their porches or through their windows. Some walk the streets of their neighborhoods or patrol in cars.

However, the Los Angeles Police Department and others have standing warnings for participants. Call police immediately when signs of trouble appear. Never take the law into your own hands. Never try to arrest or detain a suspect. Never insert yourself into a volatile situation. Never get so close to the action that you become part of it, such as the Hollywood Watch member two years ago who got into a struggle with an alleged drug dealer and was subsequently charged--briefly--with attempted murder.


Block captain Keith Brown got much too close to an explosive situation involving a Winnetka resident long known for provoking confrontations and yelling at children who stepped on his grass. Police say that after the neighbor was in a similar confrontation on Monday, Brown approached the man’s home to write down the address. The resident reportedly fired a gun. At that point, it was truly time to clear out, but Brown is said to have approached again. He was shot three times.

The lesson here is not that Neighborhood Watches are unsafe. The police should have been called immediately. Then neighbors could have safely directed the responding officer to the problem. But a crucial error was made. Because of it, sadly, a wife and son must now cope alone.