Winnipeg Free Press characterization of citizens as vigilantes grossly unfair

The Winnipeg Free Press has taken the position that action by citizens to stop the thieves stealing liquor form Liquor Marts, by making citizen arrests, amounts to vigilantism.


Quotes from the Editorial in the October 30, 2019 edition of the Winnipeg Free Press, entitled, Liquor store theft demands complex, costly solutions, stated,

“A second dangerous development is that some citizens have taken the law into their own hands — literally — and tackled and subdued thieves until police arrive.”

“But when it seems that criminals can offend without consequence, some people feel the state has reneged on its end of the deal, and a few frustrated citizens will turn to vigilantism.”


An article in the October 31st. 2019 edition of the Winnipeg Free Press an article, Provinces team up against liquor theft, written by Katie May stated,

Here in Winnipeg, police recently warned residents against vigilante justice as local Liquor Marts continue to log between 10 and 20 thefts daily.”


What is vigilantism and vigilante justice?

The word ‘vigilante’ has Spanish origins.  It means, to watch or guard.  In other words, to be vigilant.  The word became common in English usage during the 19th century and referred to groups or individuals that attempted to summarily suppress or punish crime outside of established legal boundaries.

In today’s terms, vigilantes are individuals who operate without legal authority and are in fact breaking the law.  Vigilante justice is the act of ‘enforcing’ laws without authority to do so and without regard to due process and the rule of law — again, an illegal activity.

That raises the question, what are citizens in Canada allowed to do and what authority are they granted in terms of intervening when they witness a crime being committed?

Citizen powers of arrest are dealt with under Section 494 of the Criminal Code of Canada:

  • 494 (1) Any one may arrest without warrant:
    • (a)a person whom he finds committing an indictable offence; or
    • (b)a person who, on reasonable grounds, he believes
      • (i) has committed a criminal offence; and
      • (ii)is escaping from and freshly pursued by persons who have lawful authority to arrest that person.
    • (2) The owner or a person in lawful possession of property, or a person authorized by the owner or by a person in lawful possession of property, may arrest a person without a warrant if they find them committing a criminal offence on or in relation to that property; and
      • (a)they make the arrest at that time; or
      • (b)they make the arrest within a reasonable time after the offence is committed and they believe on reasonable grounds that it is not feasible in the circumstances for a peace officer to make the arrest.
    • (3) Any one other than a peace officer who arrests a person without warrant shall forthwith deliver the person to a peace officer.

(4) For greater certainty, a person who is authorized to make an arrest under this section is a person who is authorized by law to do so for the purposes of section 25.

The reference to Section 25 of the Criminal Code is also of importance as it authorizes the use of force by citizens when making a citizen’s arrest:


Protection of persons acting under authority

  • 25 (1) Everyone who is required or authorized by law to do anything in the administration or enforcement of the law
    • (a)as a private person,
    • (b)as a peace officer or public officer,
    • (c)in aid of a peace officer or public officer, or
    • (d)by virtue of his office,

is, if he acts on reasonable grounds, justified in doing what he is required or authorized to do and in using as much force as is necessary for that purpose.

In layman’s words, here is what these two sections of the Criminal Code mean:

— A citizen who sees an indictable offence being committed (theft, for example, is an indictable offence) has the legal authority to make a citizen arrest.  The important thing is that the citizen must see the actual commission of the offence.  A citizen could not, for example, arrest a suspect whom he recognizes from a video as having committed an offence in the past (police, however, do have the authority to arrest a suspect in that instance).

— If a citizen is acting lawfully and making a citizen arrest, he/she may use force to do so.  The force used must be reasonable in terms of the circumstance.

— Once a citizen makes an arrest there is an obligation to turn the arrested person over to police ‘forthwith’.  In the case of Liquor store thefts that would means there is an obligation to contact police as soon as practicable after such an arrest is made so that police can take custody of the suspect and process the suspect through the criminal justice system.

Citizens, acting within the law and arresting thieves at Liquor Marts are not vigilantes.  They are exemplary citizens who take citizenship seriously.  They should be commended not denigrated.

The circumstance such as the number of suspects, their attitude and whether you are alone with a group of people, and your age and capabilities are determining factors in terms of whether you should get involved when you see an offence being committed.

That brings me to the second point in the above-mentioned mention Free Press editorial:

The nature of liquor store larceny sparks controversy because it appears the thieves are stealing with impunity.  A defining characteristic of a country such as Canada is that when crimes are committed against people and property, good citizens agree to let the state handle it and criminals get busted.”

That in a nutshell is precisely what has plagued policing for at least half a century if not longer.  What the editorial is referencing is what is referred to as the ‘professional model of policing’, which was based on three tenets: random patrols, rapid response to calls for service, and reactive criminal investigation.

Under this model the role of citizens is reduced to reporting crime, after the fact.  There is no cohesion between citizens and the police and no sense of working together toward a common cause or goal.  It is more like a contractual financial agreement; citizens pay taxes and in return receive services.  That may be an acceptable model for refuse collection but not for policing.

It was this model which resulted in alienation between the police and the public and removed the public from the crime prevention equation that led many community groups from the 1970’s and onward to demand some form of community policing; in essence, a return to the model of policing envisioned by Sir Robert Peel.

Peel’s Principles of Policing were introduced in 1829 at a time when policing in England was moving from a watchman model where citizens took turns performing the watchman/policing  function at the community level to a system where policing was moving to hiring peace officers to perform the policing function on a full time basis.   At the time Peel and others were worried that the hiring of full-time peace officers could possibly lead to alienation between the public and the police.

Peel’s 7th Principle (see below) which has become the mantra of community policing advocates addresses the issue of maintaining the link between the community and the police:

Principle Seven

To maintain at all times a relationship with the public that gives reality to the historic tradition that the police are the public and that the public are the police; the police being only members of the public who are paid to give full-time attention to duties which are incumbent on every citizen, in the interests of community welfare and existence.  For a complete listing of Peel’s principles and a commentary on each click( here )

The section in the Canadian Criminal Code that grants citizens the authority to arrest can be traced back to Peel’s 7th Principle.  If the public are to be involved in assisting police in the interests of community welfare and existence, they need legislated authority that empowers them to do so in order to make their actions legal and fit into the framework of the rule of law.

The Winnipeg Free Press in their October 30th Editorial  suggests that a defining characteristic for a country such as Canada is that good citizens agree to let the state handle criminal activity and that citizens will mind their own business.  If that is true, then community policing is dead, because community policing envisioned citizens and the police working together to combat crime.

The way to resolve criminal issues is direct and meaningful interaction between the police and the community, where both parties work to support each other in pursuit of a common goal.  That goal in Peel’s words is the absence of crime.   We need to live up to the tradition of ‘the police are the public and the public are the police’.