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Smithsburg fears liability over Neighborhood Watch

February 17, 1998|By LISA GRAYBEAL

Smithsburg fears liability over Neighborhood Watch

SMITHSBURG - Residents who formed a Neighborhood Watch group in Smithsburg said Tuesday they are willing for the group to be covered under the town's liability insurance as long as the town doesn't try to run the group.

The meeting was set up to discuss potential liability issues the town could face with the formation of the group. Town Council members, six Neighborhood Watch volunteers, Washington County Sheriff's Deputy Jim Holsinger, who helped the group get started, and others attended.

Normally, local government is not involved in the Neighborhood Watch. But because Smithsburg's group was a spinoff of the town-appointed Citizens Police Advisory Committee, council members and Mayor Mildred "Mickey" Myers said the town could be held liable should anyone get hurt.

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At a meeting last month, town officials and members of the Neighborhood Watch group clashed over the issue. Council members said they wanted some control over the group while the residents said they wanted to be independent.

Both sides were told Tuesday that even if the Neighborhood Watch group acts separately, with no ties to the town, the possibility exists that the town could be sued, town attorney Edward Kuczynski said.

If, for example, a Neighborhood Watch member were to witness an attack but not report it, the victim could sue the volunteer because he or she didn't meet the responsibilities of a Neighborhood Watch member, Kuczynski said. The crime watch volunteer, in effect, would be an agent of the town, he said.

Neighborhood Watch organizer Sherry Owen questioned how a crime watch volunteer could be considered an agent of the town if the group is separate.

"That's the question mark," Kuczynski said.

"People go after anything," added Councilman James Cunningham.

Even if a lawsuit were unfounded, the cost to the town to defend itself would be between $2,500 and $5,000, Kuczynski said.

According to the insurance policy, anything sponsored through the town or the Citizens Police Advisory Committee would be covered, Scott Soderstrom, a representative of Local Government Insurance Trust, the town's insurance carrier, said.

Council members said there would be no attempt to control the Neighborhood Watch group. They said a liaison from the council would stay in contact and provide reports.

Neighborhood Watch groups exist throughout Washington County and there are several in Hagerstown, but the question of liability had never been brought up until the group in Smithsburg organized, Holsinger said.

Another meeting will be held to get organized and get the group off the ground, Myers said.

Neighborhood Watch recently was formed in Smithsburg because of ongoing problems with juveniles in the community and small crime like vandalism, theft from automobiles, and harassment, Owen said.

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