Zimmerman called Sanford police on Feb. 26, a rainy Sunday evening, to report a suspicious person inside his neighborhood near Seminole Towne Center.
But this much isn't in dispute: Zimmerman was armed. He was alone. And while waiting for police, he somehow got into a fight with the person he thought suspicious.
All three of those actions are strongly discouraged by the National Sheriffs' Association, which oversees about 20,000 Neighborhood Watch programs.
There are practical reasons for those rules.
And this absolutely heart-wrenching one: A family of a teenager is now coping with a death that probably could have been avoided.
"There is no reason in the world to carry a gun for Neighborhood Watch," said Chris Tutko, a retired police chief who now directs Neighborhood Watch for the sheriffs' association. "It gets people more into trouble than out of it."
A manual published by the association for its "USAonWatch" program makes that very clear.
"It should be emphasized to members that they do not possess police powers and they shall not carry weapons or pursue vehicles," the manual states. "Members should never confront suspicious persons who could be armed and dangerous."
Zimmerman is reportedly the self-appointed leader for the group at his complex of town homes. A sign at the gated entrance warns it is surveilled by Neighborhood Watch, and says, "We report all suspicious persons and activities to the Sanford Police Department."
That's a prudent step for any neighborhood. In fact, Neighborhood Watches are popular in Central Florida. In Orlando alone, there are 905 block captains listed with Orlando police.
Some groups are highly organized and walk their neighborhoods in scheduled patrols. More often, though, neighbors just get acquainted with one another, exchange phone numbers and learn to report anything out of the ordinary that they notice as they move through life's predictable moments: taking out the garbage, walking the dog or getting the mail.
Even the basis for Zimmerman's initial phone call is questionable.
Here's why: The sheriffs' association manual lists the type of suspicious activity that should be reported to police. Among the examples: "Someone peering into car windows" and "broken doors or windows."
Nowhere does it list walking while black, which is all Trayvon appeared to be doing as he made his way back to the house of his dad's fiancée after a candy run to 7-Eleven. Trayvon was armed only with a package of Skittles in his pocket.
At least one neighbor told the Sentinel that young black men were suspected in recent neighborhood crimes. Yet nothing — so far, at least — suggests that Zimmerman had reason to think Trayvon was committing a crime.
We don't know exactly what happened next, but at some point the two fought. Zimmerman was bleeding by the time police arrived, and Trayvon was lying facedown dead in the grass.
Zimmerman told police the shooting happened in self-defense. The Seminole County state attorney is investigating whether the killing was justified.
It doesn't take much investigating, though, to see that if some basic, common-sense rules of Neighborhood Watch had been followed, it's likely none of this would have happened.
Find out what another Neighborhood Watch leader with a weapons permit says on Beth's blog at OrlandoSentinel.com/bethkassab.
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