Watch groups strive for balance after Zimmerman verdict

CBS

(CBS News) George Zimmerman's acquittal in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin has triggered widespread protests, including a march to the Justice Department on Saturday and a sit-in at the Florida state capital in Tallahassee.

It has also brought a nationwide debate over neighborhood watch groups and how far citizens should go to protect their communities.

Some places like Asbury Park, N.J., have seemed to strike a balance.

Asbury Park is a small beach town along the Jersey Shore, one hour south of New York City. It's 1.4 square miles of ocean, a boardwalk, and a residential community concerned about safety.

Lawson June is the leader of Citizens On Patrol (COP), which is a group of volunteers that serve as an extra set of eyes and ears for the Asbury Park Police Department.

"Occasionally we stop, talk to the kids. We talk to the adults, just see how things are going," said June. "We just try to let them know why we are out here and we're not the enemies. We're not police officers, we're community people trying to do a job."

COP members spend 10 weeks training with police on how to watch out for possible trouble, like an open door on an abandoned house or an erratic driver.

"Our citizens on patrol are not armed in any way. They do not carry handcuffs, they do not have arrest powers, they are merely an observe-and-report organization," said Michael Casey, Asbury Park's community relations officer.

"If we find any problems we will contact the Asbury Park Police Department and they will take it from there," said June.

Neighborhood watch groups have existed since the early 70s, but they've received extra scrutiny after the shooting death of Trayvon Martin by neighborhood watch member George Zimmerman.

Trayvon Martin shooting: A timeline of events

"If he would have listened to what the dispatches told him to do, then he wouldn't have put himself in that situation," said Casey. "Our citizens on patrol are trained not to exit the vehicle and put themselves in harm's way."

Tom Gilmour, the director of economic development for Asbury Park, has organized two recent meetings with police for new neighborhood watch groups that have drawn as many as 40 people.

"I think people really are concerned about crime in the city and want to do something about it," said Gilmour.

Unlike COP, Gilmour's organization will not patrol the streets. He doesn't worry about any negative stigma about this community group.

"The neighborhood watch is a proven program, very successful and you know, to really prevent crime in any city, you really need to get the community involved, and that's what neighborhood watch does," he said.