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Florida city reverses gun ban on neighborhood watch volunteers

George Zimmerman testifies from the stand before Circuit Judge Kenneth Lester Jr. at the Seminole County Courthouse in Sanford, Florida, Apr
George Zimmerman testifies from the stand before Circuit Judge Kenneth Lester Jr. at the Seminole County Courthouse in Sanford, Florida, Apr

By Barbara Liston

ORLANDO, Florida (Reuters) - Police in the Florida city where George Zimmerman shot and killed Trayvon Martin have backed off a plan to explicitly ban neighborhood watch volunteers from carrying guns while on duty.

Earlier this month, police in Sanford, Florida, announced new rules on how civilian patrols can operate in an attempt to revive the program's reputation.

Sanford was thrust in the national spotlight last year when Zimmerman, a former neighborhood watch captain, gunned down Martin, an unarmed black teenager. Prosecutors accused Zimmerman of chasing down and killing Martin, but a jury acquitted him in July of murder.

Sanford Police Chief Cecil Smith, in a phone interview on Wednesday, refused repeated requests to explain the reversal.

"That was the choice of the chief. That was my decision," Smith said. "What my thought is is unimportant."

Smith introduced the new rules and a new handbook for the town's neighborhood watch program at a community meeting on Tuesday.

Last week, his spokesman told Reuters the new rules would explicitly state that residents acting under the authority of neighborhood watch may not carry a firearm or pursue someone they deem suspicious.

The Orlando Sentinel newspaper reported the ban upset gun advocates, but Smith told Reuters he felt no pressure to make the change.

Neighborhood watch consists of residents who volunteer to be the eyes and ears of police in their neighborhoods, and simply report to police any suspicious activity.

"We are strongly suggesting, strongly recommending, strongly urging people not to be armed in the performance of neighborhood watch," Smith said.

Neighborhood watch programs, formally organized in 1972 under the National Sheriffs' Association, began in reaction to the notorious 1964 murder of Catherine Susan "Kitty" Genovese.

Her cries for help during an attack outside her Queens apartment reportedly were ignored by neighbors, one of whom was famously quoted as saying she did not want to get involved.

Today's neighborhood groups often are untrained and unsupervised by police, vary in their dedication to the job, and remain unregistered with either the sheriffs' association or local police agencies.

(Editing by Kevin Gray and Richard Chang)

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