Changes unlikely to spark vigilantism, says justice minister
Originally posted: http://www.theepochtimes.com/n2/canada/superheroes-and-angels-welcome-new-citizens-arrest-laws-147695.html
Epoch Times Staff Created: November 23, 2011 Last Updated: November 23, 2011
PARLIAMENT HILL—Caped crusaders can rest a little easier after Justice Minister Rob Nicholson tabled a bill to simplify and clarify citizen’s arrest laws on Tuesday.
Then again, Canada’s own real-life superheroes are more inclined to hand out blankets and teach school kids than take out drug dealers, so maybe it won’t matter much.
But store owners in Toronto’s Chinatown will be relieved. Long-standing grievances about shoplifters not getting serious police attention reached a breaking point for shopkeeper David Chen in May 2009 when he chased down and detained a thief who’d stolen plants from his Lucky Moose market earlier that day.
But because the crime was not in progress, Chen’s citizen’s arrest was illegal and his subsequent trial for assault and forcible confinement inspired NDP MP Olivia Chow to table a private member’s bill to overhaul citizen’s arrest legislation.
The Liberals tabled a similar bill, and the government eventually introduced its own version that died when the election was called. Now it’s back, and Chow said the new version is in line with what she wanted to see.
“I’m glad that my old private member’s bill, my Lucky Moose bill, has finally become the government bill,” Chow said Tuesday.
Chen, who was eventually acquitted, also welcomed the changes.
“If the law changes it will be good for so many people, any small business like me can have more power to protect our stuff,” said Chen. “We can do more.”
Nicholson seems to agree. He said Tuesday citizens trying to protect themselves or their property shouldn’t be afraid of becoming criminals themselves.
“Canadians want to know that they are able to protect themselves against criminal acts and that the justice system is behind them, not against them,” he said.
The re-introduced legislation will expand and simplify citizen’s arrest laws and widen the time period under which someone can make a citizen’s arrest. Current legislation limits citizen’s arrest to crimes in progress, which is why Chen faced charges.
But would-be superheroes still need to act responsibly lest they end up as Phoenix Jones in Seattle, the superhero persona of Benjamin Fodor who was denigrated by police as a vigilante and charged when he tried to break up a fight.
Canadians seem content to leave crime fighting to the police. The most well-known Canadian real-life superhero is Vancouver’s Thanatos, a 63-year-old former intelligence officer with the U.S. Army Special Forces.
Real Life Superhero
Thanatos began his crime-fighting career four years ago with plans to stop criminals in their tracks. Wearing a skeletal cloth mask and clad in black, the unidentified man quickly changed course after taking to the streets and realizing any drug dealer he did stop would be quickly replaced by another.
“You learn going head to head with these people is just not going to do anything,” he said in a Skype video chat, mask on.
Now he hands out blankets and food, and tries to comfort the afflicted. Over the years, he estimates he’s added a day to the lives of at least 600 people.
But 15 years ago in Toronto, he grabbed a machete from home and faced off with a group of kids, some armed with guns, who were terrorizing a shopkeeper. His efforts got him and the kids arrested, but it didn’t dampen his hope to make a difference.
“I have always believed in stepping in. … It was a little aggressive but I was afraid for my friends in the store.”
Like others, Thanatos, (named for a Greek demon of death) said Canada’s complicated citizen’s arrests laws left him uncertain about taking certain actions when he eventually donned a costume and took to the desperate streets of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.
But he never considered being a vigilante, a position others interested in citizens’ arrests echoed.
“You don’t want vigilantes—you don’t want that. You have a justice system, maybe it is flawed and overcrowded, but it is working. People taking the law in their own hands doesn’t work well.”
He points to the case of three Chilliwack, B.C., teenagers who became entangled in controversy last week for their efforts to lure sexual predators into the open and YouTube the encounters.
The teens posed as underage girls online to lure predators, then filmed the face-to-face encounters while dressed as Batman and Flash.
Thanatos said the teens took incredible risks unwisely. “Sexual predators are probably one of the more dangerous breeds of criminals,” he said.
Predators can lose their jobs, families, and standing in the community if exposed. “That could be enough to drive someone to do something extremely violent.”
Canada’s other prominent real-life superhero (RLSH), Anonyman in Saskatchewan, also focuses on surveillance and public awareness.
According to Peter Tangen, a photographer who launched the Real Life Super Hero Project and helped arrange interviews with Thanatos and Anonyman, most RLSHs are best described as activists who use costumes as a way to brand good deeds and draw attention to their causes.
While Thanatos and Anonyman follow a non-confrontational path now, focusing on surveillance and aid to the needy, Canadian chapters of the Guardian Angels had hoped to start a more direct grassroots crime prevention movement. But there too, complicated citizen’s arrest laws were not the deciding factor that has kept the angels from taking off.
Greg Silver heads up the Calgary chapter of the group. Although the angels remain more active in the United States and other countries, their red berets are rarely seen on Canadian streets.
The group works on a variety of actions but is best known for its patrols and efforts to encourage citizens to confront crime where it happens, going so far as to stop criminal activity and make citizen’s arrests.
“Everybody likes the fact that we are out there, but nobody wants to put themselves in danger. Nobody wants to step in,” said Silver, explaining the limited presence of angels in Canada.
Currently, there are only a handful of active angels in Canada, he said. Calls to other Canadian chapters listed on GuardianAngels.org went unanswered, with some numbers now defunct.
GuardianAngelsCanada.org, the purported Canadian website for the group, is now a Japanese dating site, the domain name apparently having been repurchased.
Silver said the group has found it near impossible to recruit members willing to go on patrol.
“You kind of make a target out of yourselves,” he offered as explanation.
Dave Schroeder, the group’s Canadian coordinator, said there are a core group of angels active in Canada but patrols have declined due to a lack of people.
“While most people we encounter say ‘what a great idea’… it seems that very few people decide to really make that commitment and do what it takes to get out there.”
But citizens have a right to stop crime he said, welcoming improved citizen’s arrest legislation.
“Bottom line is, if more people understood that Canadian citizens are born with the right to assist someone in trouble, and use reasonable force to do so, [they can] make a citizen’s arrest.”
Silver said the group was warned by a lawyer that they could be liable for actions taken on private property, even in the case of a rape, under current laws.
But like Canada’s masked crusaders, the angels also discourage vigilante activity, saying their efforts focus on legal actions and supporting the police.
Victor Kwong, a media relations officer with the Toronto Police Service, said the group was not welcome in Toronto, in part because they were crossing a vague boundary between citizens and a quasi-policing group.
Citizen’s arrests are happening in Toronto regardless, he said, but mainly by security guards trained in relevant laws. Outside the high-profile case at the Lucky Moose, the average Joe rarely makes a citizen’s arrest, he said.
While citizen’s arrests are one way people can help police, it certainly isn’t the only way he said.
“You can call police, be a good witness,” he said.
That means not sharing your observations until you talk to police he said, noting that people’s memories get tainted when they discuss what they saw with others who add their own variations and embellishments.