Vancouverites urged to release inner vigilante
From Tuesday's Globe and Mail
July 15, 2008 at 3:33 AM EDT
VANCOUVER — An eye-gouging fistfight between a good Samaritan and a purse snatcher has prompted Vancouver police to offer qualified support for vigilante action, suggesting citizens should feel free to indulge their inner Batman if they have the martial and physical skills to prevail against bad guys.
The call to action during the police department's daily news briefing yesterday was one that veteran criminologist Neil Boyd found "a little unusual." Police routinely suggest the public back off in such cases in case criminals are armed, he said.
"Traditionally, the police have tended to be reticent or discourage intervention because of the risks involved," said Prof. Boyd, who teaches at Simon Fraser University.
"On the other hand, there's a case to be made for community responsibility," he said. "There's a limitation to how much police can do. They can't be everywhere at once."
Vancouver Constable Tim Fanning commended the good Samaritan yesterday as he revealed details about the Sunday purse-snatching and the scuffle that followed.
At about 4:30 p.m., a 39-year-old woman from Surrey was paying for parking when a shirtless man grabbed her purse and ran.
He drew the attention of a 20-year-old man from Richmond, B.C., who parked his car and emerged, just as someone dove into a dumpster.
"So our witness, quick-thinking, slams the lid down on him," Constable Fanning said.
But the suspect was able to "weasel" his way out of the dumpster.
"So the witness grabs him, puts him in a headlock and the suspect starts fighting, just a furious fight.
"He's trying to gouge our witness's eyes. He's biting him and it's a hell of a fight," Constable Fanning said.
Police, called by bystanders, arrived and arrested a suspect. Incredibly, neither the witness nor suspect was injured in the melee.
Constable Fanning said when citizens come upon a crime in progress, they should call 911 to see that police are on the way.
"It always depends on your ability; how comfortable [the citizen] feels chasing a suspect down. What happens if they have a weapon? What are you going to do? So some people have that gut reaction. They feel strong enough, comfortable enough in their skills to fight somebody that they are going to try to hang on to that person until police arrive.
"In this instance, it turned out well."
Police don't encourage the average person to act, he said, but "some people have outstanding skills.
"Maybe it's an off-duty police officer. Maybe it's somebody that studies the martial arts that's very used to hand-to-hand combat scenarios, or maybe it's just somebody that's so angry and incensed at seeing somebody victimized that they feel they're just going to do something," Constable Fanning said.
He said he had no details to offer on the skills of the witness, whom police are not identifying.
However, they plan to put his name forward for a civilian police commendation.
Sergeant Roger Morrow of the Surrey RCMP detachment said the whole issue is a challenge for police.
"Are we seeking the assistance of the public in our community? We are on a regular basis. Are people as good Samaritans going to engage? Yes," he said.
But he said he worries they may find themselves up against people with weapons.
"My concern would be if it doesn't have a successful conclusion and [the Samaritan] is hurt. For me, there's not an easy answer. I wish there was."
Adam Ryan, co-owner of Dynamic Mixed Martial Arts in Vancouver, said it can take a year for students to be ready for a street fight, which can be unpredictable even for someone with skills.
"Usually, the best thing is to turn the other cheek unless you have no choice," he said, raising the danger that attackers may have weapons or, worse, friends to back them up.
But he said Constable Fanning's statements have merit. "I'd support that 100 per cent. You want people helping each other."