By Jeffrey B. Roth
GETTYSBURG, Pennsylvania (Reuters) - When a Missouri-based Ku Klux Klan affiliate dropped leaflets on residents' lawns in a southern Pennsylvania township to announce the start of a neighborhood watch, the idea of a hate group patrolling their neighborhoods made many townspeople uneasy.
But researchers from the Anti-Defamation League and Southern Policy Law Center who study the group contend the Klan's move over the last few weeks may have been more flash than substance, a last-gasp bid for relevancy by the 150-year-old white supremacist group in a nation that is leaving its movement behind.
The type of angry white men who swelled the Klan's ranks after the abolition of slavery and returned during the civil rights era of the 1960s today may instead prefer the paramilitary trappings of newer hate groups to the KKK's infamous white robes and hoods, according to the ADL.
The targeted towns in suburban Pennsylvania south of the capital Harrisburg, are hardly hotbeds of crime. FBI data from 2013 shows 19 homicides reported across the county of 437,000 residents, a rate well below the national average.
But the Klan affiliate Traditionalist American Knights contends it was called in to establish a neighborhood watch after a wave of car break-ins.
"We'll send some of our people out to train them to make sure that they are doing things properly, that they're doing everything in a law-abiding manner, not acting like vigilantes or anything," said Frank Ancona, imperial wizard of the group based in Park Hills, Missouri, some 850 miles west of the Pennsylvania communities.
Ancona said members of the watch do not wear the white robes and hoods that Klan members did in the 19th and 20th centuries when they launched terrifying attacks on black Americans, Jewish Americans and others targeted for ethnic or religious persecution.
"That's part of the strength of the Klan," Ancona said. "Criminals don't know who the people on patrol are or the number of them."
But Mark Pitcavage, who studies the Klan for the Anti-Defamation League, suggested that there may be another factor that could make it hard for criminals to spot the neighborhood watch: It may not exist.
"Frankly, I don't buy it," Pitcavage said. "They have no real presence in the region. They may have a few members; they may have enough members to scrape together a small Klan rally, but not enough to operate a neighborhood watch patrol."
Ancona says the group has 1,000 members in the Pennsylvania area, a number that Pitcavage views as exaggerated: True membership may be less than 50, he estimated based on his years of tracking the activities of the KKK and similar organizations.
While the number of hate groups active in the United States increased to about 1,096 in 2013 from 708 in 2002, according to Mark Potok, senior fellow of the Southern Poverty Law Center, researchers say KKK membership has decreased in recent years.
The ADL estimates that the KKK now has some 3,500 members nationwide, down from about 8,000 members 10 years ago, while the SPLC contends the number of chapters currently stands at about 163, down from 221 in 2009.
LAW ENFORCEMENT CONCERNS
Local law enforcement officials said they had not been contacted about the KKK affiliate's plans. In Camp Hill, where the group also plans to set up a watch, Police Chief Douglas Hockenberry urged residents to call 911 rather than a Missouri-based hotline if they see any criminal activity.
"We do not have a high crime rate," Hockenberry said.
While neighborhood watch groups, civilians who report crimes to police, generally serve a useful purpose and get the community involved, problems can sometimes arise. George Zimmerman, the Florida man who shot and killed unarmed teen Trayvon Martin in 2012, was a neighborhood watch member.
The Klan has long been linked to violent attacks, most recently last month when 73-year-old former KKK leader Frazier Glenn Cross shot dead three people at two Jewish community centers near Kansas City, according to prosecutors.
That image of KKK members as aging may be a factor in the group's decline, said Pitcavage, who added that disaffected white Americans looking to join hate groups have other options, including neo-Nazi groups and militias.
"The Klan is not the only option or the coolest option either," Pitcavage said.
Moves like the Pennsylvania neighborhood watch may be an attempt to recruit new members, Pitcavage said, although Ancona, the KKK leader, denied that was a motivation.
"We don't necessarily need the publicity," Ancona said. "Best recruiting occurs person-to-person. I don't know where they get their numbers from. We have members in every state except Alaska and Hawaii."
(Editing by Scott Malone and Gunna Dickson)