Or being a vigilante as it is sometimes called, depending on your point of view. Vigilantism is an extremely emotive topic with arguments both for and against, and there are lots of people who will vehemently fight for both sides of the coin. Personally I am undecided on the subject, as a Police officer I am of course one of the people sworn in office to uphold the law of the UK and defend those who are unable to defend themselves. The problem is that we (the Police and more importantly the criminal justice system as a whole) have been failing on the latter point with increasing and alarming regularity. Things are not as bad as they could be, but they are definitely worse than when I first joined at the beginning of the new millennium, and considerably worse than when I was a kid.
The media have always used vigilantes as a subject for comics, movies and books, one of the most recent films that come to mind is the film Outlaw with Sean Bean. If you haven’t seen it already then I would suggest watching it, it’s not brilliant but the basic story line is something that most people can relate to, especially if you happen to live in an actual non-gated, non-taxpayer funded house in a normal community. A group of guys find each other after a series of personal tragedies and they decide that enough is enough and that they should take the fight to the bad guys as the Police (of whom most can’t lay in bed straight according to the ridiculously clichéd Bob Hoskins character) are unwilling or unable to do anything about it. It’s not film of the century by a long shot but it did get me thinking a bit.
Long before the Police existed, communities ran themselves and the Government was a long distant figure that demanded considerably less tax than now. Judges were sent round the country on Circuits to do the court thing so that they would experience life (and crime) in many areas of the country and not just where they lived. Crime was at a level that would seem like the pearly gates compared to now. The main reason for that is people knew that they didn’t have to put up with any hassle, and if it was too big for one person to deal with, a group of them could get together to sort the problem out. Even after the Police were set in statute with the Metropolitan Police Act 1829, communities could still look after themselves and address anything up to a major issue with a bit of common sense.
Children learned that they had to respect other people or face the consequences and that they couldn’t just do what they wanted, when they wanted to do it. This was still the case when I was growing up although the wonderful fruits of the 60’s mentality of doing away with discipline and giving annoying children a hug were still growing in popularity in schools and social opinions.
Nowadays there is no way that the majority of people feel they can take it upon themselves to challenge behaviour from fear of being arrested and charged after too many cases of initial victims being arrested while the suspects are let off or even compensated. Even worse is the fear of being kicked to death in the street for asking a bunch of drunk tossers to stop smashing your car up as sadly happened to Gary Newlove, or being kicked to death for protecting your boyfriend who was attacked for no other reason than how he dressed, as happened to Sophie Lancaster.
When I was 12 we lived on an Army estate just outside a small German town, there was one main road through it with blocks of flats (fenced all the way round to stop people going into the farms on either side) and a couple of play grounds. We had German friends, some of the wives who chose to learn German worked in local shops or the Army admin buildings along with some of the locals who were employed by the Army, and for the most part everyone got along. We then started getting problems with a group of Turkish lads in their late teens to early 20’s who would come onto the estate from their own housing estate a couple of miles away.
They would pick on some of the younger kids, cause damage to cars and windows and generally cause a nuisance kicking over bins and graffiting buildings at night. For the most part, the adults would actually be able to chase them off however couldn’t do too much as it would have put the Army in a bad light. The RMP (Royal Military Police) stepped up patrols after complaints from families, although they were actually powerless to do anything. The Local German Police were also increasing patrols however due to racial tensions at the time (the 80’s saw a huge influx of Turkish migrants who were seen in much the same way as eastern European migrants are now in some areas of the UK) they were reluctant to actually do anything worth while.
Things got steadily worse over the summer with army kids getting beaten up and groups of kids throwing stones and cans at cars driving onto our estate. Then there was a big exercise and the whole battalion was away for 6 weeks, which meant there were hardly any men around. It didn’t take the gang long to realise that there was no one about to chase them off. They then came onto the estate for longer, making it virtually impossible for any of us to play outside, some of the women who worked in local shops were harassed on the way to and from work. Things came to a head when a group of 20 – 30 Turkish lads came onto the estate and went on a rampage smashing flat windows and setting the playground alight. After that we couldn’t go outside, our estate had become a no go area for the local Germans, as well as the Army families who lived there.
After the exercise our dads came home to see how bad things had gotten while they were away and one weekend we were told explicitly by our parents that we had to stay inside, no matter what. The gang came onto the estate as usual about 20 strong until something happened. Two ‘four tonners’ – army workhorse trucks – turned up and blocked the estate off at either end. No one could get out of the estate because of the fence around it. Men in combats and balaclavas were everywhere, they started to fight with anyone who wasn’t in combats, they were dropped to the floor, tied up and thrown in the trucks. Once everyone had been rounded up, the trucks drove off. The people rounded up were beaten, stripped naked and left in a field about 30 miles away from their own estate.
I lived on the estate for another two years and after that night no one ever came round again.
If that happened now there would be a massive investigation with people getting arrested for kidnap and GBH at the least and the media would be in an absolute frenzy about it. No one was arrested by the German Police or the RMP, nothing was in the local papers and no one ever admitted to being in the group who rounded them up, although everyone knew about it.
I have heard of similar things happening (although not on that scale) since I’ve been a Police officer. In a particularly rough town not far from where I live, four teenagers who were prolific car thieves and burglars caused misery to the people living in a couple of roads. They caused havoc until they were rounded up by people considerably harder than them, one managed to escape but the other three didn’t. Bricks and feet were introduced to parts of bodies that were only designed to be treated nicely and others which were essential in the control of a car.
They too, stopped for quite a while afterwards, mainly because of long hospital treatment. If they did carry on as they had, they certainly didn’t do it in those streets. There was a bit in the local paper about a gang of teenagers being viciously attacked by local men, the local councillor expressed her outrage at people taking matters into their own hands and the local divisional commander said outright that it would never be tolerated and that they would catch the offenders. To my knowledge, they didn't. I went to training school with a couple of guys who worked on the division, privately, they said everyone was well happy that it had happened. The ones beaten deserved every second and it solved the problem. They knew that all they were able to do was arrest them if they could catch them and then send them to court. Each already had a string of previous convictions and knew full well that nothing substantial would ever happen.
The main problem that society has with vigilantes, is the fear that once the problem that starts them off is sorted, that they will continue and eventually become worse than the original problem unless they stop and disband. The courts and the government will also not tolerate anyone circumventing their authority. I have known police officers who have given very serious consideration to using an unmarked van to round up and dish out a bit of social justice to specific targets, the question everyone wants to know is, would it solve anything?