By Curtis G. Kimble.
Since the Trayvon Martin death in Florida, neighborhood watch groups in HOAs have become a hot button issue. The neighborhood watch group that George Zimmerman, the man that was carrying a gun and shot Trayvon Martin in self defense, was a part of was overseen by the homeowners association. That HOA was sued by Trayvon’s family for wrongful death and other claims and ended up settling for an undisclosed amount of money that is thought to be over $1,000,000.
When something like the Trayvon Martin death occurs, claims are filed against anybody who could possibly have any culpability, which will include the HOA when the issue even remotely involves or implicates the HOA. So, what’s an HOA to do? Should your condominium or HOA establish, or continue, a neighborhood watch? What are the risks and how do you mitigate them? HOA insurance specialist Béat Koszinowski answers these questions in his recent article here: Neighborhood Watch Groups in Your HOA.
The single biggest factor as to whether a watch group will create more issues and liability for an HOA isn’t whether the neighborhood watch volunteer carries a gun or other weapon, because if it gets to the point where a weapon could be used, the HOA will likely be sued either way. For instance, if the volunteer ends up being beaten to death and was not allowed to carry a weapon by the HOA, the HOA will likely be sued by the family of the volunteer (whether rightfully or not). Instead, it’s when volunteers go beyond simply reporting suspicious activity and instead take law enforcement into their own hands that the issues and liability open up like floodgates. As Béat points out, “watch groups can do more harm than good when group volunteers go beyond contacting the local police department and act as the HOA’s own law enforcement. Watch groups that engage perpetrators, use physical force or carry weapons put your HOA at risk for a lawsuit.”
Béat also points out, and I agree, that, ideally, to reduce liability, a neighborhood watch program should have no official connection to the HOA and the board should have no involvement in the creation or regulation of the watch group. But if your HOA decides to start a watch group, it’s imperative that the HOA:
- establish specific written guidelines and policy for the group stating what the volunteer should and should not do, what the volunteer’s duties are exactly, and a procedure when suspicious activity is encountered,
- contact the local police department to receive watch group training, and
- check that its insurance covers the watch group.
While neighborhood watch groups can serve an important and effective purpose, they can also create more issues and liability. An HOA board should contact its association insurance professional and attorney and follow certain risk mitigation steps if it operates, or plans to institute, a neighborhood watch group.
In my humble opinion, no community association should have or establish a neighborhood watch group that is sponsored by, endorsed by, supported by or otherwise facilitated by the association or its board. This is contrary to my nature which would otherwise like to encourage community participation and I believe this is probably politically incorrect. Unfortunately, good deeds are no longer part of our value system. Rather, good deads lead to liability. As an individual, I will not stop getting involved, but as a risk manager and insurance professional for community associations, I am required to discourage the association from assuming liability that they do not otherwise need to assume in their fiduciary capacity in the management of an association. A neighborhood watch should only be set up by and under the supervision of local law enforcement and completely unrelated to an association. I wish I could recommend something else.