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Doug  Wyllie

Doug Wyllie

Doug Wyllie has authored more than 1,000 articles and tactical tips aimed at ensuring that police officers are safer and more successful on the streets. Doug is a Western Publishing Association “Maggie Award” winner for Best Regularly Featured Digital Edition Column. He is a member of International Law Enforcement Educators and Trainers Association (ILEETA), an Associate Member of the California Peace Officers’ Association (CPOA), and a member of the Public Safety Writers Association (PSWA).

Richard Valdemar

Richard Valdemar

Sgt. Richard Valdemar retired from the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department after spending most of his 33 years on the job combating gangs.

Vigilante Justice

June 19, 2009  |  by Richard Valdemar - Also by this author

Last week I managed to find the time to watch some old classic movies on TV. No matter how many times I see it, I always enjoy Clint Eastwood in "Dirty Harry." I also watched a couple of the "Death Wish" movies starring Charles Bronson. I was amazed how timely the original 1974 movie made from a crime novel by Brian Garfield still is. A new version of "Death Wish" is even in development right now, with an expected release date of 2011.

Popular Films

In fact, many of the most popular old movies have this same recurring theme. The protagonist and his family are victimized by outlaw gang members and the police and justice system seem powerless to punish the offenders. The audience vicariously enjoys the vengeance when the hero finally metes out justice to the outlaws and he takes the law into his own hands.

In "Death Wish," Korean War conscientious objector Paul Kersey (Charles Bronson) lives in New York City. His wife is murdered and his daughter is sexually assaulted by a gang of drug addicts led by Jeff Goldblum. After returning home from a trip to Tucson, Ariz., Kersey begins carrying a pistol. One night he is confronted by a mugger. He shoots the bandit. Sickened at first, Bronson's character recovers the trauma to become a vigilante punishing a dozen criminals before being shot himself.

When released, this movie was highly controversial and criticized extensively for its graphic violence and glorification of vigilante justice. However, especially in crime ridden New York and Los Angeles, movie audiences applauded when Kersey shot each criminal down. "Death Wish" became one of the top grossing films of the 1970s. Four sequels would follow.

Add to the scenario I suggested above that the government authorities are not just impotent but corrupt, and you will find numerous other classic stories: Robin Hood, Zorro, Batman, and classic westerns like "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance," "High Noon," "The Wild Bunch," and "Tombstone."

Even more current and urban realistic was Jodie Foster's "The Brave One." My wife and I agreed that this film was outstanding, and one of the best ever performances by Jodie Foster. Foster's character is attacked by a gang in Central Park, her fiancé is killed, and her dog stolen. Too frightened for vengeance, our hero Erica buys a handgun illegally for protection. But the crime-filled streets of New York force Erica to defend herself.

This film has the best (or worst) depiction of what a victim feels like while trying to get help at the police precinct. The gang members are very well depicted and the final confrontation is worth seeing. And now Clint Eastwood brings us "Gran Torino."

What makes these films so popular? Why are we so connected to the heroes in these stories? I believe that we all can identify with them because we all feel victimized when we hear of the crime, drugs, and gangs running out of control in our streets. We all fear that the justice system seems unable to protect us or punish the bad guys. The courts seem to be arguing about "How many angels can stand on the head of a pin" instead of dispensing justice. When these conditions and feelings become extreme, self protection groups are spawned, and average people become vigilantes.

Origins of Criminal Vigilantes

The word vigilante comes from the Latin vigilare, to watch; vigilantes were watchmen. We got the term vigilance from this root word. But vigilantism denotes going outside the law to punish law breakers and corrupt government agents. Vigilantism targets persons who are perceived to be escaping justice or somehow above the law.

From the beginnings of western society, vigilante groups can be found. The ancient custom of dueling was one accepted form of "seeking justice" outside the legal system for the aristocracy. When monarchies ruled, the nations' secret groups formed to oppose tyrants and to carry out family vendettas. In medieval Sicilian society the "vindicator" arose to punish criminals. This was the root from which would spring the Sicilian Mafia.

Our own American Revolutionary beginnings can be traced back to a famous North Carolina vigilante group. The "Regulator" movement began in the early 1770s in the frontier American Colonies. These vigilantes opposed the English Colonial government and used extra judicial means to punish wrongdoers. From the peaceful protests, to actions against individuals, to open armed conflict with military forces, these vigilantes became some of the first American Revolutionary heroes.

The poorly governed Western frontier areas of the United States bred more vigilante groups. In the 1850s an army of vigilantes formed in San Francisco to police the wild western boom of the gold rush. And in the South the first Ku Klux Klan formed when Southern justice systems collapsed after the end of the Civil War.

The 20th Century witnessed the birth of Suojeluskunta (Protection Corps) during the Finnish Civil War. The anarchy in China in the 1920s resulted in the Big Sword Society's formation. More recently a group who ignore international laws, the Sea Sheppard Conservation Society, is actively trying to save whales from the whaling industry. The Sombra Negra or Black Shadow was formed in the 1980s to combat communist revolutionary criminals and especially the Mara Salvatrucha Gang in El Salvador.

Citizen Volunteers

Not all vigilante type groups are criminal. In 1977 Curtis Sliwa formed a group originally called the "Magnificent 13." This occurred when budget cuts forced the city of New York to cut back on police services, and the city was suffering from a crime wave. This was especially evident on the subway system where groups of drug addicts and gang members mugged New York commuters daily. The citizen volunteers patrolled the streets and subways dressed in a distinctive uniform; white T-shirts, jeans, and red berets. Today this group is known as the Guardian Angels.

In June of 1992, Guardian Angel founder Curtis Sliwa was the victim of a kidnap murder attempt. He somehow managed to escape after being shot. The Gambino family leader John Gotti's son was the suspected shooter. His alleged accomplice was Michael Yannotti, who was also associated with the Gambino family, but three New York juries were unable to convict them.

In 2000 southwest borders ranchers reacted to the flood of illegal drug and human traffickers illegally squatting and trespassing across their property. They formed the "Ranch Rescue" Organization. This would evolve into the "Minuteman Project." Like the Guardian Angels, this group used only legal means to force the state and federal authorities to deploy more effectively along the Southwestern border.

In 2002 national attention was drawn to a television program featuring the use of the Internet to "sting" sexual predators. This program utilized a cyber vigilante group called Perverted Justice. Law enforcement was very reluctant at first to get involved, but soon they would praise these citizens policing the cyber world of child predators.

The critics of vigilantism say that the enforcement of laws is the job of the police and other government agencies. However, vigilantes are born when proper authorities fail to protect and serve, and government agencies became bloated and bureaucratic. So my advice to cities, counties, states, and federal authorities is; if you don't want vigilantes - do your friggin' jobs.

Comments (9)

Displaying 1 - 9 of 9

bdtcop @ 6/19/2009 4:59 PM

In today's economy, as our political leaders cut across the board rather than by prioritizing, your words will come to have even greater impact. As economics drive more crime, while agencies cut manpower, citizens will take to their own wits rather than depending on 911. I wish the Sergeant's column could be broadcast beyond this arena, to remind the politicos that they are supposed to provide services to the community, not just be a socialistic workforce without consideration for its final product.

walkin' trails @ 6/19/2009 5:02 PM


ROB ROY @ 6/19/2009 8:03 PM

Maybe if police/deputys/feds, hands were not tied behind thier back's by the politician's maybe just maybe there wouldn't be any vigilante justice. Today the rev. al sharpston is in phoenix protesting our sheriff Joe Arpio. This raging P.O.S. is demanding Joe resigns because he will not politics get in his way. Joe has the support of a vast majority of the citizen's here. Since he's doing the job that the federal gov. will not do, all crime has gone down 40%. All the other politicians are at a loss as to why, but the public is not, we know why it happened. Just imagine if all the, sheriff's, mayor's, city councils, senators, and so on did thier job's. But no thier not because thier afraid of one good for nothing so called reverand that hasn't had a real job in his life, and is the most racsist, hypocritical turd in America. Not to mention what business does he have even showing up here in Arizona trying to tell any of us how to do anything here. So untill our leaders get a back bone and tell idiots like sharpston to go get bent were going to have vigilantes.

prosecutorx @ 6/20/2009 10:22 AM

As long as the administrators of prosecuting agencies allow politics and political agendas to affect the management of their offices, we prosecutors will never be as effective as we could be in doing what we're supposed to do: represent the People by enforcing the law. As a friend who works homicide for a medium-city police department puts it: by the time most cops hit the second level of management, they're no longer thinking about "the job", they're thinking about their careers. Same goes for most prosecutors. As usual, Sgt. Valdemar tells it like it is.

Morning Eagle @ 6/20/2009 12:06 PM

Another very insightful piece by SGT Valdemar and I must agree with the comments posted by bdtcop and Rob Roy so I won't repeat what they have already said. However, I do believe the term "vigilante" has been twisted by the media and politicians to include individuals who found themselves in circumstances where they had to defend themselves or someone near them. Even some of the commentary accompanying some "actuality" TV programs that are basically pro law enforcement use the term too loosely when they label a person or persons who were only trying to protect themselves from scumbags attempting to steal what they had no right to and using threats of death or bodily harm to accomplish their goal. When seconds count the victims often must take action or die. Engaging in justifiable self defense does NOT make one a vigilante!

ROB ROY @ 6/21/2009 10:42 PM

Morning Eagle your dead on, someone defending him/her self is not a vigilante. He/She is a survivor. I will never understand what happened to our media but your right in the last 10 years something has twisted them into a socialistic state media.

David Moore S-55 @ 6/23/2009 8:30 PM

Sgt Valdemar, Rich, - Has hit this right on the bull’s-eye again! - He has a very keen sense, knack of studying and applying his 33 plus years of wisdom into the future by his articles, to the point and straight forward for action of what works and what does not. Based on some comments I have seen, read, related to this subject, to stories etc - in local media by many citizens (Which do little to solve the issues - but can stir up more problems stereotyping judging a book without going past the covers) are tired and at the end of the rope of a broken justice system (Victims seem to be lost in the shuffle on broken promises and commitments by some of the politicians who speak with a forked tongue) or lack of listening to the issues until it lands in their back yard reactive VS proactive. Speaking from first hand experience myself - People who speak up tend to be outcast, ridiculed as the truth hurts...why denial sets in like concrete. We need to listen and act before it's TOO LATE!! I know I am listening and learning!

oifdeuce @ 1/4/2011 11:49 PM

When you think of vigilante you think of a "normal and specific" criminal element. The judicial system is "just about" a complete failure. Cops are no longer allowed to protect the victims. Judges and attorneys and "civil" groups are becoming the "law", a dysfunctional law. Politicians along with their judicial partners(in all their forms) are fast becoming a thing of the past. Sad but true. Today's economy sees much ignorance protruding from the rocks. Many people are suffering and not only their government induced demise, but at the hands of the financial "organized crime" network. I have read, heard, and witnessed vigilante groups gathering to "bring hell" to debt/bill collectors and their families as they have to their millions of victims. Rapists, murderers, thieves, child molesters, illegals, and national security deviants have a new partner in crime, debt collectors. Literally getting away with murder. There are NO LAWS or REGULATIONS that dictate these operations, DO NOT BE FOOLED by the FDCPA. It is business AND politically oriented ONLY and it looks good on paper. There is talk of a revolution, revolt, and vigilante justice. And now, as I look and read daily, it is quite necessary because our system has failed us as Real and True Americans, consumers, victims etc...... It is not our law enforcement or our military that has failed, it is the pathetic wisdom of politicians and corporate higherarchies that need to be brought down, and fast.. I am intellectually proficient and I promise this, never in my wildest imagination would I have ever thought of supporting vigilantism, but now, I DO... Sign me Up!!!!!

Bill Smeathers @ 2/20/2011 7:47 AM

I want everyone to know the evil which exists with our law enforcement community and justice department when dealing with the drug war.

What you will find, is what these people did to my 9 year old daughter during one of their pathetic drug raids.

Please access my "profile" then my "info" page and read my "BIO.

Post to your Facebook friends.

Thank You.

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