People like to associate vigilantism with the Wild West, but when you do some checking, actual participation in vigilante-style justice is pretty rare out here. There’s so little local support for citizen action here, that Red Deer can’t even keep afloat a chapter of the Guardian Angels.
In Alberta, getting into a vehicle to chase down someone you believe has stolen your property, much less perhaps firing a shotgun in his general direction, is a rare occurrence. Theft is not exactly a risk-free activity in this area, but the number of police arrests does not begin to match the number of incidents of rural or oilfield property theft, never mind the number of times a citizen alone has ever managed to stop a theft or recover stolen property.
But whenever news stories surface about criminals stealing quads, trucks or farm equipment, you can bet commentary on our online versions runs toward support for vigilantism. “I hope somebody gets that sunovabitch someday,” or (more often) “the police will never catch that guy.”
There is a perception that the only times thieves will likely face justice is when they are caught accidentally by the police (while driving erratically in a stolen truck), or are surprised when the property owner shows up while the theft is in progress.
Two incidents from last year can serve as bookends to what happens to the hard feelings people have when they become victims of crime.
In one event, the teenaged daughter of a pastor in Edson was found murdered on a nature path near her home. The crime was shocking and gruesome. In such an event, in a close community, it’s hard to know what to do with your feelings.
So naturally, while RCMP poured as much manpower as possible into the investigation, rumours swept through the town of a citizen search, bent on finding the culprit before the police did.
In December, a suspect was arrested and charged, and the case now winds its eternal circuit through the courts.
The feelings people have in the face of this are totally understandable, but the outcome of acting on them can be disastrous.
Also last December, a Red Deer man was having some trouble getting into his truck. Only it wasn’t his truck; it just looked an awful lot like his truck.
The truck’s real owner showed up and quickly delivered a beating so severe that the unfortunate man now has metal plates in his face, held in place by screws.
He has no feeling in places around his head and without doubt will live with the effects of traumatic brain injury for life. The truck’s real owner, who claimed he was only defending his property, was sent to jail.
In the past, a store owner in Calgary was acquitted of shooting after thieves who had tried to rob him one time too many. The owner was fed up with being a victim and confronted the crooks with the real threat of violence.
Some years back, the Advocate argued that criminals who break and enter, or who rob with violence, lose their right to the same level of protection from harm by others as a law-abiding person can expect. One shouldn’t expect to rob a store, or a farmyard, without some buckshot eventually coming your way, or a baseball bat being swung at your head.
Canadian common law is based on ancient practice in Britain, and back when common law was supplanting the arbitrary rule of the nobility, it was quite acceptable to kill a thief.
Today, we trust police, courts and lawyers with these matters, and we don’t kill thieves.
Compared with many societies around the world, there’s a lot less Wild West in us than people think.
But from time to time, the threat of harm — who knows if it is a real deterrent to crime? — at least helps people who are the victims of crime think the good guys are still in control.
Greg Neiman is an Advocate editor.