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Citizen Volunteers or Lawless Vigilantes: Who is Helping Protect our Cities?

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Linda-Marie Sundstrom, Jim Bishop & Mark Kling
November 14, 2022

As we move away from the mid-term elections there are questions left unanswered about the future of community safety. What happens to our society when our criminal justice system fails to keep us safe?  Our leadership is under pressure to stem the skyrocketing rates of violent crime across the country.  With the perception that the government is failing to protect its citizens, Americans are turning to alternative approaches to protect themselves, their families and their property. 

Americans have a unique spirit of independence, and a rich history of volunteerism. Americans are willing to volunteer their time and money for a number of causes—now they are volunteering to protect their neighborhoods that are facing escalating rates of violent crime. Unregulated community volunteers across the country are forming civilian crime watch groups to increase safety in their communities.  Although their intentions to protect their communities are noble, the potential for possible abuse is high.

Escalating Crime:  New York Transit Assaults & Murders

In 2022, violent crime in New York City skyrocketed. Innocent citizens being violently attacked every day. In the first two weeks of October 2022, the New York transit system alone, experienced brutal and frightening attacks that included:

  • Dad of two fatally stabbed on the L train
  • Beloved father fatally stabbed while commuting home
  • Dad of four fatally stabbed on the bus
  • Woman bashed on the head in random attack
  • MTA bus driver slashed with a razor on the job
  • Man randomly shoved onto subway tracks at Union Square

For many commuters, New York City transit is the only option to get to work, school and shopping. Major felony transit crime has already escalated by nearly 42 percent in 2022. If the government is unable to keep this vulnerable population safe, what alternatives do people have? 

Escalating Crime: Portland, Oregon

According to the National Insurance Crime Bureau, vehicle thefts continue to skyrocket across the country. There were 932,329 vehicles reported stolen in 2021, and 2022 is shaping up to far exceed those numbers. Portland, Oregon alone is on track to reach over 10,000 stolen vehicles in their city this year. Police departments are facing reduced funding, requiring them required to allocate resources to only the most dire crimes. The majority of vehicle thefts are never investigated, and vehicles are never recovered. In Portland, citizens are faced with the escalation of brazen, violent crimes, along with having one of their most valuable and vital possessions stolen from them—their cars. 

Civilian Crime Watch Groups

As a result of escalating crime and a struggling criminal justice system, networks of civilian crime watch groups are springing up across the country to fill the void. In New York, the Guardian Angels serve as a civilian crime watch group to help assure citizens of their safety on the transit system and in their communities. In Portland, a group of volunteers was formed to search for stolen vehicles. Some say these groups are formed by concerned citizens who are volunteering their time to improve the safety of their neighborhoods, while others refer to them as lawless vigilantes. 

Volunteers Filling Gaps

In the United States, volunteer groups and nonprofits offer a broad range of services, filling the gaps where government and the private sectors are unable to serve the public fully. Americans generally view volunteerism as a noble and giving act of kindness—some say the best part of the American Spirit. But what about volunteers who fill a gap in government services related to public safety? One national publication referred to Portland’s civilian crime watch group as an “…army out hunting” for stolen cars.  This characterization may illustrate an aversion for groups who desire to improve community safety.

Ideally, communities will prioritize public safety and strive for a functional justice system where laws protect communities and deter crime. This idealism provides police the resources to enforce the laws and prosecutions are pursued to provide justice for the victims of crimes. If portions of the system (or the system as a whole) are unable to ensure safety, the violent crime and thefts our nation is facing will continue to rise, unchecked.   

The emergence of these community crime watch groups (organized to fill the gaps left void by a reimagined criminal justice system), may represent the best in American volunteerism. However, these crime watch groups are unregulated, lacking oversight of any kind. The potential for abuse remains high.  But Americans are unlikely to “sit quietly” and watch their communities descend into lawlessness—even if that means taking matters into their own hands. Government agencies should consider partnering with these citizens to assist with community safety. The government will not only extend its reach, despite limited resources, but also draw in strong community policing practices by integrating their efforts more fully with community members. As crime becomes more brazen and violent, citizens will cry out for help. That help will either come from the government, unregulated citizen groups or a voluntary partnership of both. 

Author: Dr. Linda-Marie Sundstrom is a former Fulbright Scholar who taught Public Administration in Ukraine at a university under the Office of the Ukrainian President.  She worked for 20 years in local government and has taught in Master of Public Administration Programs for nearly two decades.  She is currently the MPA Program Director for California Baptist University in Southern California. Email: [email protected]

Author: Professor Jim Bishop has been teaching law for the past 42 years and is currently a faculty member at California Baptist University’s Criminal Justice Department.  He has been a licensed attorney in the State of California since 1975 and practiced law for 15 years, before becoming a judicial officer for Riverside County Superior Court, primarily serving on a Criminal Calendar. Email: [email protected]

Author: Dr. Mark Kling has been in law enforcement for 34 years, 13 as police chief. He has taught both Public Administration and Criminal Justice courses for the past 20 years. He is currently the Criminal Justice Program Director for California Baptist University and came out of retirement to transition the Rialto Police Department to new innovative executive leadership. Email: [email protected] / [email protected]

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