Mistaking Community Self-Protection with Street Justice

Fresh on the heals of more murders in one Providence neighborhood, residents in another provided an example of one way to cut down on crime:

The suspects fled empty-handed from the house … and found a gathering crowd, said Randy Figueroa, 20, one of the neighbors. One of the suspects pulled out a gun and shot at a neighbor, Figueroa said. The man dropped to the ground, realized he wasn’t hit ––and then everyone went after them, Figueroa said.

Police officers in the area heard the gunshot and saw a swarm of people chasing one man. The officers joined in, pursuing the man into a cemetery at the end of the street, where they arrested him.

One of the suspects has already been in and out of the Adult Correctional Institution (ACI) and was currently being sought for failure to appear in court after posting bail on subsequent offenses.

Note the narrative.  Reporter Amanda Milkovitz, the headline writer, and the editors who put the story on yesterday’s front page proclaim the theme of street justice, as in the headline’s “Neighbors administer a dose of street justice.”  That makes for a compelling title, but it’s not really accurate.

Street justice would be the neighbors’ grabbing the perp as he relaxed at home and beating him up.  This was more akin to citizen crime prevention.  The possibility of being set upon by an angry mob of otherwise law-abiding neighbors surely provides a disincentive for future crime.  The disincentive would be even stronger to the extent that the criminals expected the posse to be armed with something more powerful than sports equipment.

In that regard, the street justice narrative is in the same frame of mind as New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s recent suggestion that police officers should go on strike for stronger gun control.  John Lott observes survey results that indicate that men and women in uniform actually believe, in his words, that “laws disarm law-abiding citizens, not criminals, and thus make it easier for criminals to commit crime.”

The people of South Providence illustrated why that’s the case, and one of them almost lost his life in the effort.  The answer to that near tragedy is not to encourage neighbors to cower in their closets, but to make it absolutely clear to would-be criminals that they aren’t operating in a community of victims.