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Brown: Citizen police or vigilante justice?

BY MARCUS BROWN | MARCH 05, 2015 5:00 AM

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Police are necessary for society to function efficiently and keep people from robbing and killing each other all day. Granted, we do that anyway, but law enforcement at least serves as a deterrent for the more reasonable members of society. Without some semblance of punishment for wrongdoings, society as we know it would fall apart.

Ordinarily the task of regulating the behavior of the people is assigned to widely recognized forms of law enforcement like police departments. Lately, however, there has been an increasing number of police-like entities operating under similar pretenses that are not actually affiliated with any legitimate avenue of law enforcement.

What we have here are ordinary citizens granted special privilege by the law and acting in the place of recognized law enforcement. While this may not be a blaring issue now, the potential for misuses of power and violation of jurisdiction is too large to allow this influx of civilian policing to go unchecked.

In Virginia there has been a notable example of this trend of private policing that grants substantial influence to the common citizen. Called “special conservators of the peace,” some citizens of Virginia have been equipped by the courts with certain law-enforcement privileges under a provision of state law.

Among the privileges granted by this provision is the ability to “carry a gun, display a badge, and make arrests.” Although the names and abilities vary, there has been a rise in the work of traditional police officers being outsourced to citizens and private police entities.

One could make the argument that by doing this some of the burden is being lifted off of traditional law-enforcement agencies and given to smaller local forces better equipped to deal with the unique issues within a specific community. However, implicit in this argument is the assumption that these smaller informal policing forces can consistently operate within the same capacity as a traditional law enforcement.

If private citizens could be trusted to reliably police their own communities we would have no need for nationwide police forces. While this growth in private policing may work on a small-scale in unique communities, there is no guarantee that it will remain effective when carried on a larger scale.  

The proper functioning of any society requires a method in which the violation of the most basic social contracts can be evaluated and appropriately punished. By extension, entities must be established separate from the everyday citizen to carry out this task judiciously and without bias.

Given these prerequisites, those entrusted with the responsibility of maintaining order amongst the general public must be held to a higher standard than those they are responsible for. Anything less than that is vigilantism. To escape the appeal of vigilante justice, police departments are formed with varying degrees of oversight and accountability to the people. This ideal cannot be forgotten when exploring new methods of policing the general public.


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