Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

Vigilantism strikes a chord

It's been two years since Bernhard Goetz opened fire in a subway car, injuring four young men he contends were about to rob him - and sparking a national debate on the frustration of a public that doesn't quite trust the criminal justice system. Mr. Goetz's reaction and explanation that he was seeking to thwart a crime is not unusual; three out of every four crime victims in the United States resist the crime in some form, whether it be reasoning with the attacker, fleeing, screaming, hitting or kicking, or showing or using a weapon. And only 37 percent of all violent crimes are actually completed, according to statistics from the National Crime Prevention Council.

``This thing struck a responsive chord in a lot of American urban dwellers,'' says Stuart Hill, a criminologist and sociologist at St. Lawrence University. ``They feel helpless, powerless, and fearful. They've lost faith in the police to protect them. They see direct punishment as a way to deal with predatory strangers.''

About these ads

But in Goetz's case, deadly force was used, and it is alleged that Goetz used it beyond the point of protecting himself - one of the victims was shot again after he had fallen and was lying on the floor.

Black leaders further charge that a racist presumption and toleration of violence against blacks plays a key role in the case; all Goetz's victims are black.

The death of a young black in Howard Beach in Queens last week adds fuel to that argument. Michael Griffith was struck by a car as he tried to escape a group of white teen-agers who were beating him and a companion and shouting racial epithets. Some people who live in Howard Beach say they are suspicious of blacks because they say blacks perpetrate crime in the neighborhood. These are the types of fears that can lead to vigilantism.

Meanwhile, Goetz, charged with attempted murder, is about to go to trial. Three of his victims have since been arrested in a variety of criminal cases. The fourth has been paralyzed since the shooting.

Although the Goetz case drew national attention as a dramatic incident, it is far from being the only controversial case involving deadly force in this country.

In Miami, a storekeeper, tired of a string of robberies, put an electric grid in his store. A youth stealing from his shop was killed. A mob in California was involved in the death of a youth who minutes earlier had opened fire with a gun at a party, killing another youth. No one was charged in the second death. In New York City, a youth was stabbed to death in a subway station by an older man who fled and has not been found. There were reports that the youth and a companion had appeared to be trying to take the man's bag.

Few of these cases actually go to court - Goetz is an exception, legal observers say - in part because of laws governing self-defense and the use of deadly force.

About these ads

And criminologists and sociologists refuse to say these kinds of cases are rampant - the reason they get such media coverage, some say, is because they are so unusual and sensational. Most observers say they see no evidence that vigilantism has become an institution.

Instead, people try to make communities safer through neighborhood watches or other improvements.

``Generally speaking, Americans are frustrated and angry, but hopeful in terms of the fact that so many are getting involved [in crime-prevention programs],'' says Leonard Sipes of the National Crime Prevention Council, who reports that 1 in 4 urban dwellers is involved with neighborhood watch groups. There is a sense, he says, that they can control crime - without resorting to the kind of deadly force Bernhard Goetz used.

But there has been a tendency in recent years to condone the use of deadly force because of political realities. Most states adopted laws governing the use of deadly force during the '50s and '60s. Basically, individuals have the right to self-defense, and the right to prevent a felony. Many states allow the use of deadly force in these cases. The standard is often whether an individual reasonably believed himself in danger.

``The law sets the standard to achieve, but in practice people do what they think is right in the circumstance,'' says Gerald Israel, a law professor at the University of Michigan. He adds that few cases are prosecuted.

``It's awfully hard for someone to second-guess in these cases,'' says Professor Israel. ``Especially if the persons see a lawyer before they talk to the police. Their statement tends to fit with the law.''

The Goetz case is complex. The initial public cheering, Israel believes, was for a person challenging criminals. But after additional details came out, the question arises, was he protecting himself or was he saying, `These are bad guys and I won't let them have my money?'''

The case is further complicated, says Israel, because Goetz had been mugged before.

``He may have experienced a different kind of fear in light of his background,'' Israel says.

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.