The controversial killing of teenager Trayvon Martin in the southern United States by a man who was patrolling his neighborhood has brought attention to private citizens taking the law into their own hands.

Baruti Jahi, a longtime Washington resident and father, knows he can't take his family's safety for granted. "I'm up at four in the morning looking out my window because my dog is barking, and all of a sudden I see two young men walking down my street.  At four in the morning, that's an unusual situation," he said.

Jahi called the police after that incident, and they caught the young men, who were trying to break into a nearby house.

He says it was their behavior that drew his attention. "They were just taking little peeps and then looking into each car," he said.

It's Samantha Nolan's job to help people recognize those behaviors.  

Nolan will train residents of Jahi's neighborhood on running their own neighborhood watch group.  For more than a decade, she has worked with the police to train more than 1,000 people in the nation's capital. "We have an expression: 'See it, say it.'  If you see something, you call 911 (the standard emergency phone number in the U.S.) and say what you see," she said.

Washington Neighborhood Watch Leader Marianne Becton

Nolan decided to use that strategy here in her own neighborhood after there were 18 robberies in just 45 days.  Now, when someone goes out of town, the neighbors keep an eye out for their house and if they see something suspicious, they call the police.

"Four people were exiting a home that the neighbors knew were on vacation, and because we sent out our alert, they were watching the house, and we were able to make that arrest and that was the end of the burglary spree," she said.

Neighborhood watch groups came under scrutiny last month after a volunteer followed a young black man in a Florida town. The volunteer George Zimmerman shot and killed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, allegedly in self defense.

Nolan says she tells volunteers never to pursue anyone suspicious.  In fact, she says that just knowing your neighbors is the best way to fight crime.  And Baruti Jahi agrees. "You want to be vigilant, but not a vigilante.  You want to represent the best interests of the community in a safe and careful manner," he said.

And in that way, he hopes to help make his neighborhood just a little safer for his family.