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Policing in the era of the new vigilantes

As more communities explore versions of “self-policing” or vigilantism, the police may not be summoned until situations become untenable


Guardian Angel Eric Jackson, right, looks around while patrolling a subway car in New York, Thursday, June 19, 2003.

AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews

The definition of the word vigilante is as American as you can get: A member of a volunteer committee organized to suppress and punish crime summarily (as when the processes of law are viewed as inadequate); broadly: a self-appointed doer of justice. That is to say, if a community does not think justice is being done, community members will take up arms to defend themselves and bring miscreants to justice.

A long history of vigilante activity

America has loved vigilantes since the mid-1800s when vigilante committees took to the streets of their budding cities and towns to create a sense of order and some semblance of justice. Even when sheriffs and marshals were elected to office, vigilantes filled the gap if security felt insufficient.

Established in 1849, the San Francisco Police Department – comprised of a chief, one captain, three sergeants and 30 officers – was woefully inadequate and undermanned to deal with the 1850s Gold Rush bedlam in northern California. As a result, a group of 600 citizens formed the San Francisco Vigilance Committee to create basic rules and laws in an otherwise lawless city.

In modern times, we have seen versions of vigilance committees across the country, both formal and ad hoc groups. In 1979 in New York, the Guardian Angels donned red berets and tee shirts with their winged logo to enhance or even supplant the New York Police Department in fighting crime. Versions of the Guardian Angels still continue to ride the New York subways and transit, patrolling the streets in hopes of preventing crime.

There have been various vigilante-type groups in other locations – loosely formed or created as volunteers – who patrol their neighborhoods when they fear law enforcement agencies provide inadequate coverage.

Going beyond community policing

A local police agency may welcome such assistance. As the concept of broken windows policing became prevalent, law enforcement agencies embraced communities working together. Community policing was just that: the community working with the police. We all strived toward the same goal of community efficacy.

Broken windows policing directed communities towards policing themselves by:

  • Participating in Neighborhood Watch groups;
  • Holding community clean-ups;
  • Removing blight;
  • Calling the police when something suspicious happened in the neighborhood.

In essence, we deputized the community to help keep watch on itself. However, a feeling of distrust about the police has resulted in community policing going far beyond the reaches of the intended purpose. There is a current sentiment that calls for communities and entities to police themselves exclusively of the police.

Recently, a number of churches decided to “divest” from policing. They have come to the conclusion that based on recent police use-of-force incidents, they will no longer call the police to respond to their churches. The churches responded to a proposal by a group called “Showing up for Racial Justice” (SURJ). The group says they do not ask for individuals to refrain from calling police outside of church, but hope that some will choose not to call them.

Of course, there are also cell phone apps that advocate taking alternative measures rather than calling police. One in particular is cause for alarm. The premise of the app Concrn is that bad things can happen when the police are called for an individual with mental illness in crisis. The app’s website proclaims: “When you see a neighbor in emotional or behavioral health crises in the Tenderloin [area of San Francisco] you now have an alternative to calling emergency services.” It then states: “… trained Concrn responders will arrive and mediate or provide assistance.”

Anyone in law enforcement can immediately see the potential hazards of such an idea. Although the media suggests that the Concrn individuals are trained in mediation and de-escalation techniques, there is little doubt that a call will be made to 911 once the scene turns violent. Once again, law enforcement will be tasked to resolve a crisis already at a boiling point.

The dangers of “self-policing”

Imagine the scenarios where civilian “community police” may try to intervene: the violent mentally ill, crimes in progress, sideshows, chronic abusive inebriates, aggressive panhandlers, sexual predators and worse. Imagine if the community deems such acts being unworthy of intervention. Imagine the individuals and families under siege. It is already happening in large cities and small towns.

Consider the already low arrest, conviction and clearance rates of homicides in communities where the motto is “snitches end up in ditches” and witnesses refuse to cooperate with police. We have already seen the devastation to communities where “self-policing” has become the norm. Consider the communities where young men tell police that they will “handle it themselves” rather than divulge the identity of an offender.

As more communities explore versions of “self-policing” or vigilantism, the police will not be summoned until the situation becomes untenable and requires an emergency response. The general public may not have an idea that officers encounter hundreds of individuals with mental illness, often in crisis, each month without a violent resolution. It is predictable that once that individual becomes agitated to the point of violence, the likelihood of a violent resolution increases if police are called only at the crisis stage. This situation takes policing back to the pre-civil rights era where the divide between the community and the police is cavernous.

We have seen over the past year how demonstrations in California and South Carolina ended in anarchy and violence when law enforcement abdicated their role in policing events between counter protesters. Unfortunately, it may take several critical incidents to go wrong and for civilian groups and individuals to suffer from individuals better suited to be policed by the police for this movement to stop.

How police leaders can get ahead of vigilantism

Rather than wait for the inevitable chaos, law enforcement needs to step up to address vigilante policing. Here are several action items police leaders can take:

  • Continue to embrace community policing and retain their seat at the table. Missed meetings or unfulfilled commitments are not acceptable.
  • Select capable and informed members of agencies to represent law enforcement and communicate the value of the agency to the community.
  • Address critical incidents in a timely and professional manner before the media and the “court of public opinion” is allowed to create a false narrative.
  • Embrace the community beyond one-off events like National Night Out.
  • Create a School Resource Officer (SRO) program with hand-picked officers to have a presence in middle schools. Craft policy carefully to ensure officers are not part of non-criminal discipline infractions. Physically removing students from classes for being disruptive feeds the “schools to prison pipeline” narrative. Instead, officers only need to be present and interact with students and faculty to become part of the fabric of a school environment.
  • Partner with established programs or create your own to bring kids and cops together.
  • Create a “Cops Read to Kids” program at your local pre-school, elementary school or local library for an hour once or twice a week.
  • Hold coloring contests or a bicycle rodeo to educate kids about road safety. It’s easy to get donations to make sure every kid who attends gets a free bicycle helmet.
  • Dedicate officers to a variety of activities including fishing programs, backpacking, white water rafting, sailing and others. Day outings to a ballgame or amusement park are easily managed.

All of these examples present opportunities to show officers as human and approachable where dialogue is encouraged. It is the opposite approach of law enforcement only responding after a negative event.


Some may be content with crossing their arms and waiting for the destruction and implosion of the social experiment of “self-policing.” The “us vs them” mentality only plays into the hands of those who would usurp the duties of law enforcement.

We should recall the words of the father of modern policing, Sir Robert Peel, who said, “The police are the public and the public are the police.” Peel’s Nine Principles of Policing hold as true today as they did 200 years when he developed them. He maintained that police must gain the trust of the community, not to bend to the times, but to follow the rules of the law. In the end, for the safety of all citizens, we must remain with the community rather than apart from it.

James Dudley is a 32-year veteran of the San Francisco Police Department where he retired as deputy chief of the Patrol Bureau. He has served as the DC of Special Operations and Liaison to the Department of Emergency Management where he served as Event and Incident Commander for a variety of incidents, operations and emergencies. He has a Master’s degree in Criminology and Social Ecology from the University of California at Irvine. He is currently a member of the Criminal Justice faculty at San Francisco State University, consults on organizational assessments for LE agencies and hosts the Policing Matters podcast for Police1.