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Becky Conrad is one of several residents at Forest Park, a mobile home community in North Fort Myers, who patrols the neighborhood regularly.
Becky Conrad is one of several residents at Forest Park, a mobile home community in North Fort Myers, who patrols the neighborhood regularly. / Kinfay Moroti/news-press.com
Becky Conrad is one of several residents at Forest Park, a mobile home community in North Fort Myers, who patrols the neighborhood regularly. Conrad patrolled the neighborhood Wednesday. / Kinfay Moroti/news-press.com

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To learn about starting a watch group and getting trained:
• In Lee County, call the Lee County Sheriff’s Office at 477-1400;
• In Fort Myers, call the police department at 321-7700.
• In Collier County, call the Collier County Sheriff’s Office at 252-0700.

The community also uses surveillance cameras to help deter crime. / Kinfay Moroti/news-press.com

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Becky Conrad will sometimes wake up in the middle of the night and instinctively reach for her phone. The Indiana native and retired mother of two pulls up 16 live photos.

And she watches.

Any kind of movement will catch her — and the camera’s — eye. A suspicious person or vehicle will get her out of bed, but mostly, it will make her call police. It’s what she, and 12 other residents of the Fort Myers’ Forest Park community do to keep safe.

In the nearly 18 months since Trayvon Martin was shot and killed by George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch guard, not much has changed in terms of how watch groups conduct their business.

Martin, 17, was shot during a confrontation with Zimmerman, 29, in Sanford. Zimmerman trailed Martin, whom he considered a suspicious person, through his neighborhood.

The jury began deliberating Zimmerman’s fate Friday. He faces a life sentence if convicted of second-degree murder, but the jury may convict him of manslaughter. Zimmerman initially sought immunity under Florida’s “Stand Your Ground“ law, stating that he shot Martin in self defense, but he later waived that option.

After Martin was killed, the nation focused on self-defense and the role of neighborhood watches.

Like Conrad, hundreds of Southwest Florida citizens concerned about their neighborhoods patrol them, hoping to catch someone before they become another crime statistic.

However, one thing that all neighborhood watch coordinators from law enforcement agencies tell the groups: don’t get involved or confront any suspect. It’s all about preventing a crime and staying safe while doing it.

Gretchen Lorenzo, crime prevention coordinator for the Fort Myers Police Department, said that after the Martin incident, it was clear the department needed to reiterate the policy, and it’s working.

“We definitely don’t have any issues with vigilantism,” Lorenzo said.

Within the Fort Myers city limits, there are about 112 watch groups. Most of those are in the department’s largest district — off McGregor Boulevard, from Cleveland Avenue to Colonial Boulevard.

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When a neighborhood wants to start a group, Lorenzo, who was appointed to Gov. Rick Scott’s “Stand Your Ground” task force in 2012, will teach the dos and don’ts, introduce members to their community policing officers and learn how to be proactive rather than reactive, which means calling to report someone or something suspicious rather than handling it themselves.

Lorenzo said watchers call for a variety of reasons, including prostitution and drug activity.

“It’s basically a common consensus when a neighborhood has watch, everybody’s watching, everyone has been educated,” Lorenzo said, and they all know to call police and not put themselves in harm’s way.

Watch groups in Fort Myers are required to meet at least twice a year, and there is a police presence at every meeting. “These meetings divert crime away from the community; and empowers the residents to observe and report criminal or suspicious activity correctly,” Lorenzo said.

Conrad is coordinator of Forest Park’s program. The 55-and-over mobile home community off Bayshore Road in North Fort Myers has gone one step further with its watch — online surveillance cameras that are monitored around the clock.

The cameras have been operational for 11 years, during which time two people have been convicted and sentenced for crimes committed inside the community, she said.

Thirteen volunteers patrol the neighborhood at different hours each day. “They know we’re here,” Conrad said.

In Collier County, the Martin case didn’t spur any changes in how deputies handle the neighborhood watch program.

“We didn’t need to do anything,” said Sgt. Rebecca Gonzalez of the crime prevention unit. “We’ve always had a clear, non-confrontational policy on how to deal with incidents.”

This means acting as the eyes and ears of a neighborhood, making calls on anything unusual or suspicious. The sheriff’s office doesn’t take a stance on watch members carrying weapons — they just insist that no one confront a potential criminal.

“Not everyone knows what a crime is, but they know when something isn’t right,” Gonzalez said.

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It’s unclear if calls to the Collier sheriff’s office increased or decreased after the Martin case. The office doesn’t track the number of calls, the number of neighborhood watch groups or where they’re located, Gonzalez said.

The office recognizes citizens who make calls that lead to arrests, and the sheriff hands out civilian awards every year.

Dave Halbert is captain of his Golden Gate Estates neighborhood watch group. There are about 10 residents that are certified through training with the Collier sheriff’s office.

“If there’s anything suspicious, we don’t get involved,” Halbert said, but rather, deputies are called and take over.

The former teacher said a sign at the end of the street alerts and probably deters any unwanted visitors.

Halbert said he can understand what Zimmerman was doing, following a suspicious person. “He was doing it correctly. If he had a permit to carry, I don’t see any reason why they should go after him on that. He saw someone suspicious and that’s what neighborhood watch is about.”

— Staff writer Stephen Doane contributed to this report.

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