CRIME

The citizens’ call to arms

Gillian MacKay August 23 1982
CRIME

The citizens’ call to arms

Gillian MacKay August 23 1982

The citizens’ call to arms

CRIME

Gillian MacKay

In their paramilitary gear of red berets and T-shirts emblazoned with the Guardian Angels insignia, Curtis and Lisa Sliwa look better equipped to alarm than to attract. Yet outside Toronto’s city hall last week, the leaders of the U.S.-based volunteer crime fighters were surrounded by about 100 admirers, lending credence to their contention that, though police and politicians may not want them to organize in Toronto, the people do. Later in the day a small, elderly man ventured forward and firmly shook Curtis’ hand. “Don’t pay attention to what the politicians tell you,” he said. “We’re so happy you’re coming here.” With their controversial tactics and relentless courting of the media, the Guardian Angels have attracted attention far out of proportion to their actual numbers in Canada. Although they say they plan to organize in major cities across the country, they currently have only 32 members graduating next week from their three-month training program in Windsor, Ont.

In a sense, the flashy Angels are the most visible manifestation of a much broader wave of concern about crime and violence. A Gallup poll released in January revealed that one in four adult

Canadians was the victim of a crime in the previous 12 months. As more people’s lives are touched by crime, awareness has grown of the shortcomings in the police, court and penal systems.

The result has been a flowering of citizens’ groups that may differ in their methods and aims, but that share the belief of Curtis Sliwa that “people have been abrogating too much responsibility to police and political officials.” In British Columbia, Mothers Against Drunk Drivers (MADD) are stirring up the courts by monitoring impaired driving trials; on the Prairies rangers are patrolling rural roads in search of vandals and cattle thieves; and at Osgoode Hall Law School in Toronto, angry students forced the hiring of extra security guards following two assaults. Old complacencies about law and order are giving way to a new spirit of public involvement.

Best known among these groups are those that want to get out on the streets and actively

combat crime. Notwithstanding their opposition to the Angels, the police themselves have been instrumental in setting up such programs as Neighborhood Watch and Range Patrol, in which citizens agree to become the eyes and ears of the law. Discouraging actual pursuit, the police stress crime reporting as the most helpful citizen tactic. In Neighborhood Watch, people are urged to tighten security in their homes and watch out for their neighbors’ safety. Participants are given an identification number, which they can use instead of their name when they report an incident. That has helped overcome reluctance to become involved, says Sgt. Ken MacKenzie, who heads the 3,500member Neighborhood Watch in Halifax. “It’s almost as if they feel the police can see who they are,” he says.

In rural areas, where physical distances rather than urban anonymity may impede crime detection, members of Range Patrol and Rural Crime Watch groups climb into their cars and trucks to track down criminal activity—garbage dumping, vandalism, property and livestock theft. In Alberta, where Rural Crime Watch has grown to 14,000 members in four years, participants “ticket” strange vehicles parked on rural roads and record licence numbers which are then fed into an RCMP computer. Ray Nicoll, president of Cochrane-Foothills Protective Association, which covers a 6,000-square-mile area west of Calgary, says that in 1981, such reports resulted in 118 convictions. Typically, two cattle thieves were caught after patrollers spotted them dumping hides into a public lake.

Anything that smacks of vigilantism, rather than vigilance, however, is likely to raise official ire. In Winnipeg, when the Urban Knights, a group of 12 volunteer crime fighters, began patrolling streets in May, Attorney General Roland Penner denounced their “Charles Bronson death wish” approach to crime prevention and established a governmentapproved alternative called Project Prevention. In part because of that opposition, the Urban Knights have abandoned the patrols and watch the streets only when requested. Says the group’s founder, Barry Marchand, a 35-year-old former military policeman: “We’re not trying to be police. We’re trying to promote volun-

tarism and community service. We do things like escort old people in the evenings.”

While some citizens are talking about crime in the street, others are mounting a well-organized challenge against the courts, penitentiaries and the National Parole Board. Typically sought are the reinstatement of capital punishment, tougher sentencing, abolition of mandatory supervision and an overhaul of the parole system. Says Les Bewley, a former judge in the criminal division of the B.C. provincial court: “For a long time, the system was so sacrosanct that no one dared to touch it. Today that holy awe is gone. It’s like looking at the emperor and saying he’s got no clothes.”

Often, people spearheading the groups have been touched by personal tragedy. Victims of Violence, a Torontobased support group for families of murder victims, was founded by two parents whose daughters had been murdered. Leaders of three groups in Canada, which have formed to fight the problem of drunk driving, have all lost relatives in accidents involving impaired drivers. In Duncan, B.C., Svend and Inge Clausen formed Citizens United for Safety and Justice in September, 1981, six weeks after their 15year-old daughter, Lise, was murdered by a previously convicted sex offender out on mandatory supervision (a law that requires the release of prisoners who have demonstrated good behavior after they have served two-thirds of their sentence). From 1976 to ’81,72 Canadians were killed by convicts free on parole or mandatory supervision.

The emotion that underpins these protest groups does not prevent them from being effective. In June, Penner announced stiffer penalties for drunk drivers two months after he received a petition with more than 5,000 signatures from the provincial branch of Citizens Against Impaired Driving. In Nanaimo, B.C., the 15-member Court Watchers, a group that monitors the sentencing in the local courts, successfully obtained retrials in two cases of impaired driving that had caused deaths. In both, the original court-ordered, two-year sentence was doubled. Protests by feminist groups over the recent series of rapes in Toronto led to the announcement last week of a task force sponsored by the police commission.

Although public concern over crime and violence tends to rise in response to highly publicized events such as the Clifford Olson murders, most of these groups are in for the long haul. As Shirley Harrison, a founder of Victims of Violence, says: “We won’t fizzle out. We’re here to stay.”

Jackie Carlos

Kathleen McDonnell

Peter Carlyle-Gordge