05 Nov 2012

Vigilantism Pros and Cons – A Security Professionals Perspective

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The term vigilantism evokes dark and disturbing images to the minds of many in the general public, as well as those charged with providing law enforcement and security services. Part of the challenge is that the term is difficult to precisely define; a person watching out for a neighborhood is vigilantism to others.

For my purposes here, the definition “vigilante” will be defined as an unauthorized group or individual exercising police powers. Cornell University Law School defines police powers as powers granted to the states through the 10th Amendment to make and enforce laws to protect the welfare, safety and health of the public.

Vigilantism Pros and Cons – The View from the Frontline

My Experience from the Frontline
As a Sheriff’s deputy on patrol, I found that most issues with vigilantism arose when individuals or the community felt that their justice and security needs were not being addressed as a result of a perception they were being ignored, misguided policies or the ineffective implementation of good policies. “Us versus them” attitudes by either law enforcement or individuals are counterproductive to resolving these issues.

As a result of budget cuts across the country, many communities have to adjust to fewer law enforcement officers to deal with the same or increasing levels of criminal activity. Further complicating matters, jails and prisons are facing overcrowding issues with personnel cuts of their own. To adapt to these changes, many communities are responding by developing neighborhood watch programs to deal with the shortfall or to respond to increased criminal activity. This has led to concerns over vigilantism by some criminologists, the media and other groups concerned with armed civilians “patrolling” neighborhood streets.

Relationships and Mutual Trust Are Key
In my experience as a law enforcement officer and as someone who has trained citizens to safely and responsibly handle firearms, I have benefitted from a multitude of perspectives on victimization, conflict resolution and the legal consequences of self-defense. As a result of this experience, I have found that encouraging citizens, communities and law enforcement agencies to develop and coordinate a partnership more effectively addresses the unique problems each community faces. The most effective law enforcement officers develop relationships with citizens in their beat that helps keep them informed on trends in criminal activity, persons involved and encourages confidence, trust and respect for the officer, as well as the agency.

Those officers understand that even though a citizen may not be well educated or literate in legal matters, they do have a wealth of valuable experience and perspective on the neighborhood they live in, as well as valuable insight on the impact policies have on their community. Further, when citizens are provided with information and expertise from officers that recognize their value, most are eager to provide support to the officer and express a desire to stay within appropriate guidelines to support law enforcement or security objectives.

Communities Must Be Engaged
As a result of changing demands from the public, challenges to improve the public perception of law enforcement services and reduce the legal challenges faced by law enforcement agencies, more policy makers are learning what many patrol officers have understood for a long time. Criminal activity and security concerns are a multi-dimensional, multi-disciplinary puzzle that requires engaging all aspects of a community to include individuals, families and neighborhoods to successfully deal with addressing root causes, beyond the reach of law enforcement efforts.

One of the most successful examples of this approach is the Drug Market Intervention Strategy developed by the High Point Police Department in High Point, North Carolina. This approach looks at the underlying issues of street level drug dealing, enlists the help of family members, mental health professionals, law enforcement personnel, clergy, community leaders and the judicial system to provide support, personal accountability and community pressure to restore an individual to productive, law abiding citizenship. It also provides the community with a sense of fairness and justice that could not otherwise be achieved.

This program has been so successful that many departments across the country are implementing it in their own communities. The broad principles and measurable progress points can be adapted for use with other community issues, reducing the potential for vigilantism. Such an approach requires more effort than utilizing street crime units and reactive policing, but the payoffs are worth it in reduced frustration, litigation, in particular, civil rights law suits and enhanced public support for law enforcement or security professionals.

What’s your take? Has vigilantism helped you secure your area and facility or do you think policing should be left solely to the professionals? I welcome your comments and insights below.

For more information on the High Point Strategy:

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