Preventing Abuse of Power by Civilian Law Enforcement Volunteers

September 11, 2009 at 7:30 am Leave a comment

The Wall Street Journal—in the Economy section none-the-less—is reporting that the economy has caused a significant increase in civilian volunteers working with law enforcement:

“The National Association of Citizens on Patrol, a Corona, Calif., nonprofit that promotes civilian volunteerism in law enforcement, says there are about 5,000 citizen patrol units working alongside police departments in the U.S., up 25% from 2008.”

Although getting more citizens involved in crime prevention efforts by partnering with local law enforcement is normally a good thing, the recent surge in civilian patrols has also created some problems. The Wall Street Journal reports that a handful of communities are having problems with civilian police volunteer going overboard in their duties by hitting citizens with cars, firing at suspects, threatening neighbors, and (in at least one instance) killing a neighbor’s dog.

Citizen Involvement is a Good Thing

Let me first reiterate: citizen involvement in law enforcement is a good thing. Neighborhood watch groups and civilian volunteers help keep our neighborhoods safe and assist law enforcement to conduct low-level duties, saving tax dollars. But every once in a while there is a bad apple, a person who lets their minuscule amount of authority go to their head and abuses the position they have been given or assigned.

Leave Law Enforcement to the Officers

It is important to keep in mind that, even though we have been tasked with patrolling a neighborhood to keep it safe, the authority to enforce the law rests squarely on the shoulders of our local law enforcement officers. Under no circumstances should a civilian volunteer or block watch captain take the law into their own hands.

Our Responsibility as Citizen Volunteers

As civilians, we have the ability to observe and report crime, but not to enforce it or punish suspected offenders. And simply because we may have been given some responsibility by our local law enforcement agency, it does not mean that we have any power over any other civilian.

Overly-eager civilian volunteers or overly gung-ho block watch captains who take measures beyond their assigned duties harm community watch efforts. Going beyond mandated duties and powers breeds a mistrust of civilians on the part of law enforcement and dissuades other citizens from getting involved with community-based crime prevention efforts.

As a rule of thumb, if you are a civilian volunteer, always err on the side of backing off and alerting police to a situation rather than trying to deal with it yourself. Escalating a situation only leads to community mistrust in civilian volunteer efforts and could result in harm to you or other community members.

Lets work with law enforcement—be their eyes and ears on the street—but not try and BE law enforcement.

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