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National Night Out: George Zimmerman case not expected to hinder event honoring neighborhood watch groups

(CBS) -- The National Association of Town Watch will hold its 30th annual National Night Out celebration, otherwise known as "America's Night Out Against Crime," on Tuesday. The event, which celebrates crime prevention throughout the country, encourages communication between communities, police and neighborhood watch groups.

While National Night Out is intended to be a fun event, filled with celebratory block parties and cookouts, one might wonder whether the George Zimmerman case has cast a shadow on neighborhood watch groups and influenced how they are perceived. 

"Everyone uses the neighborhood watch umbrella for what [Zimmerman's] group is, when really there is a severe separation," Matt Peskin, the executive director of the National Association of Town Watch in Wynnewood, Pa., and the founder of National Night Out, told Crimesider.  

"I don't know who Zimmerman's [neighborhood watch] group is, or whether he belonged to a group, but the first thing they said in training in the early '80's is: 'Don't carry a weapon and don't get involved," said Peskin.

Zimmerman, a 29-year-old neighborhood watch leader in Sanford, Fla., was charged with second-degree murder in the shooting death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin during an altercation last year in a gated community. He pleaded not guilty, claiming he shot the teen in self-defense. His acquittal, which was handed down July 13, prompted rallies nationwide calling for a civil rights probe, and the case has sparked debate about race and self-defense laws.

PICTURES: George Zimmerman on trial in death of Fla. teen

READ: Trayvon Martin Shooting: A timeline of events

"You're not allowed to carry a weapon and you're not allowed to get physically involved," Peskin said of neighborhood watch groups. "I've always known neighborhood watch groups to preach, 'Don't get in a confrontation.' If there's something you see, you call [police] and you wait for instructions."

Peskin says that while he doesn't think the Zimmerman case has made a "gigantic impact" on his organization or how neighborhood watch groups are looked at in general, he says the case has the potential to encourage the reevaluation of rules and regulations for crime watch groups.

"Maybe a year from now, people will sit down and say, 'You saw what happened in Florida right? You need to make sure they're trained. This is what you're allowed to do; this is what you're not allowed to do,'" he said.

Kathy Bieniek, a neighborhood watch president in Davie, Fla., which is about four hours away from Sanford, says that while the Zimmerman case hasn't dramatically affected her neighborhood, she can see how it may cast an unfavorable light on watch groups in general.

"I think it might have been a stigmatism or a black eye given to neighborhood watch groups in the beginning, but in the long term, I don't think so," Bieniek told Crimesider. "Everyone knows we are here for them and the community."

"I think it could go either way," she continued. "It could encourage more people to be vigilant in watching their neighborhoods or it could go the total opposite way and people won't get involved. It depends on the neighborhood. "

Bieniek echoed Peskin's take on neighborhood watch volunteers carrying weapons.

"We have never carried guns. We don't condone that. That's one of our policies. We are a watch group, not vigilantes," she said.

Throughout Zimmerman's trial, prosecutors portrayed him as a vigilante, frustrated by the break-ins in his community that prompted him to launch a neighborhood watch program. They said Zimmerman, who had aspirations to be a police officer, profiled the teen as a criminal and shot him "because he wanted to."

Meanwhile, defense attorneys painted Zimmerman as a concerned community member who was "viciously attacked" when Martin "sucker punched" him and began slamming his head into a concrete sidewalk.

Bieniek says that legally it is someone's right to carry a gun, however, if someone is participating in neighborhood watch, they cannot carry a gun. She says her neighborhood watch group is assigned designated police officers and if suspicious activity is observed, neighborhood watch is advised to call police immediately.

"They will tell you to maintain a visual, but do not confront," she said.

Since Zimmerman seemed to follow a different set of rules than those that Bieniek and Peskin are familiar with, Peskin said it's really not fair to let the case overshadow what neighborhood watch groups stand for.

"It's really not fair to the whole cause. I don't think it's hurt the cause because so many people involved know how important it is. A reflection of how important neighborhood watch groups are will be what you see Tuesday night," Peskin said.

Complete coverage of the George Zimmerman-Trayvon Martin case on Crimesider

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