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G-Sync: Zimmerman vs. Grand Rapids

“We are made wise not by the recollection of our past, but by the responsibility for our future.” - George Bernard Shaw

When George Zimmerman was acquitted Saturday night, armchair lawyers from all over began to weigh in with their insights and opinions. Often, these folks' only credentials were that they own "Boston Legal" and "Law & Order" on DVD.  

While the outrage is warranted on so many levels, I also became very concerned with how this might impact our region.

For starters, we tend to think of Florida as a far-off place with absurd laws, like the "Stand Your Ground" self-defense law used to justify Zimmerman's act of violence, unlike our own. That is, until you read Michigan Public Radio's story on Michigan's own version of the "Stand Your Ground" law and realize it is nearly identical to Florida's law. (Paging Lansing Officials: Please fix this!" 

Another thing that concerned me was how the media portrayed Zimmerman as a member of a neighborhood watch program, and how this could impact others who might think it's now open season on those who are different than us -- and in places as close as our home state.

I know many of us may have heard about them before, but do we really know what a neighborhood watch program is supposed to do?

In 1977, a woman in Alger Heights' third ward neighborhood would step off her front porch to join a group of neighbors who were concerned about the recent wave of crime. That act began a 36-year journey in making sure our city's neighborhoods were safer.

“At the time in Alger Heights, we were concerned about crime, but also the future of a park that was set to become a private sports center," says Mary Bueche, crime prevention officer at the first ward's South West Area Neighbors (SWAN) Association. "In those early days, when we had a problem in our community, we did not have mobile devices or email to communicate quickly with one another. We had to create flyers, often reproduced at a neighbor's office, before we could pass them out."

As I pressed her about the protocols and training involved in setting up a community watch program, I would learn very little has changed over the years except a few smart additions.

"Fear of retaliation is always a factor, no matter what era or neighborhood you live in. It is human nature to seek revenge," says Bueche. "To this point, it is why we ask our community volunteers to follow a few simple rule: Observe and report. That's really it."

Bueche is quick to clarify that this means to strictly observe --  do not pursue. She also points out that it does not mean going out to the street with your video camera in an attempt to capture the action. One man did that in the Creston neighborhood where she was employed at the time with the Creston Neighborhood Association.

"I told him that this type of action was not approved behavior," says Bueche. "It is also the reason why when the suspects later returned to the neighborhood. They popped off a few shots at him."

Bueche's recommendations on reporting include a few more options than the observing portion of her training. In emergency situations, she recommends  people call 911. For potential crimes, she suggests calling the police non-emergency line or submitting an anonymous tip via Silent Observer.  

She also suggests maintaining contact with your neighborhood association for those urban annoyance factors taking place in a city. The neighborhood associations are there to handle community disputes and also to ensure that if a crime pattern is emerging, they are in on the process. They often have access to other resources in the community to identify and eventually break a crime cycle.

As this point, I had to ask the question I had been dying to ask of the only person, to the best of my knowledge, with experience in each and every ward of our city: "When do you give the neighborhood watch person a piece -- you know, a gun?"

"We don't, because we do not want citizens turning into vigilantes, thus placing others in harm’s way," says Bueche.

"But Zimmerman was a neighborhood watch member," I press.

"He was not following true neighborhood watch guidelines. What he did is not what it is all about," says Bueche. "What kind of neighborhood watch instructs you to get in a car and follow someone to the point of confrontation? It is not how it is done. You are supposed to only observe and report."

We really only need to replay one portion of George Zimmerman's 911 call to know the importance of following established protocols for community safety.   

Zimmerman was asked by the 911 operator, "Are you following him?" Zimmerman answered in the affirmative. The next directive from the 911 operator to Zimmerman followed, "Okay, we don't need you to do that." If Zimmerman had listened to the operator, things would be much different for Martin, Zimmerman, and all of us.  

We do not live in a world where our errors can be erased with the pressing of a backspace bar.

"I have compiled a nice list of 'phone numbers to know' that I am willing to share with anyone interested in how they can get involved in stabilizing their neighborhoods," says Bueche. "As I look back on my years of service, we all must strive to be good stewards in our neighborhoods." (See editor's note below.)

Merriam-Webster defines a good steward as "one employed in a large household or estate to manage domestic concerns," but I prefer the less Downton Abbey WikiAnswers version the best: "Someone who takes good care of what is entrusted to them."

If you are to be a good neighborhood watch volunteer, then you have to fully understand when personal responsibility or ownership crosses into vigilantism.

In short, keep your cool this summer. Be smart by knowing who to call when something is not right and, for heaven's sake, don't place yourself in a position where either party could get harmed in the heat of the moment. This is how we organize a better block.

The Future Needs All of Us.

Tommy Allen
Lifestyle Editor

To see the very best of the region's events, visit G-Sync Events

Editor’s Note: Mary Bueche's "Numbers To Know" list can be found on Rapid Growth's Facebook Page. If you would like to speak with Bueche, please contact her at SWAN: Mary Bueche

Artwork credit: Concept artist and Disney imagineer Nikkolas Smith (Thank you, BuzzFeed.)
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