Neighborhood Watch Programs in Homeowners Associations

The recent jury verdict in the Trayvon Martin murder trial signified a conclusion to a tragic storyline that began in a Florida subdivision in February 2012. Since news of the fatal shooting broke, it is a storyline with cultural and political underpinnings that has garnered the focus and attention of all media outlets.

However, there is another storyline that went largely unnoticed that should serve as a cautionary tale for all common interest communities: Neighborhood Watch programs can expose a homeowners association to significant liability if not properly formed and operated. George Zimmerman was a Neighborhood Watch volunteer for The Retreat at Twin Lakes Homeowners Association, and the Association reached a settlement in April 2013 with Trayvon Martin’s parents in the wrongful death lawsuit they filed against the Association, paying the parents more than $1 million.

An active and organized Neighborhood Watch program in a community can provide numerous benefits. Such a program can be a significant deterrent to many would-be criminals who seek out the dark or otherwise unmonitored places in our communities where access to vehicles, yards, common areas, and the homes themselves can yield a quick score and an easy getaway. Neighborhood Watch programs can also help foster involvement and good relationships among the homeowners in a community, and provide a valuable resource to pinpointing areas where security may be enhanced.

However, as the Martin tragedy also shows, Neighborhood Watch programs can be difficult to manage when volunteers, who may have a different vision of what the term “watch” entails, can subject the Association to significant liability for their own independent action.

Nevertheless, given the benefits of Neighborhood Watch programs, like the examples above, it is common for homeowners to form such groups, and in turn to seek out the support of their homeowners association, financially and administratively. In some cases, a Board of Directors might organize a Neighborhood Watch program and operate it as a committee of the Board.

Following are guidelines for homeowners associations that have or are considering Neighborhood Watch programs:

  • Non-Affiliation. The Neighborhood Watch Program should not be a function of the Association’s regular operations.  Thus, such programs should not be a committee of the Board, or a committee of members that is operated within the Association’s governance structure. Instead, the Neighborhood Watch group should be a completely separate group of organized homeowners not affiliated with the homeowners association.
  • Independence. The Neighborhood Watch group should not be under the control of the Association, its Board, any committee, or the managing agent. The homeowners involved should meet separately, and conduct business independently from the association.  The Neighborhood Watch organizers and leaders should not be Board members.
  • Limited financial support. The association can provide limited funds to the Neighborhood Watch group if authorized in the CC&Rs.   (Most CC&Rs have a provision on “purpose or use of assessments” that states the specific uses for the association’s assessment income. The provision typically authorizes any expense that is for the “good and welfare of the members.”)   It is understandable that funds may be needed as seed money to finance initial mailings, and similar functions. The association should require that such requests for funding be made in writing to the Board, to be considered at a Board meeting, and approved by appropriate motion, discussion and vote, recorded in the Association’s minutes, with clarity as to how the funds are to be used and a statement that the Neighborhood Watch group is independent of the homeowners association.

Written by: Michael Shupe
August 2013