Monday, June 8, 2009

Media endorsement of neighborhood vigilantism

In greater Philadelphia, we've followed the story lately of an 11-year-old who was raped, whose attacker was described by police through the local media outlets, who was later brutalized by neighbors who connected him as the suspect.

Caught on camera -- always a media-friendly turn of events -- the beating has been celebrated by the masses and endorsed, in my view, by the local CBS station. Reporter Valerie Levesque (mailto:levesque@cbs3.com) described the suspect's capture as having involved his being hit with a piece of wood. Doesn't sound so bad? In my home renovation work, I've whacked myself in the head more than once with a piece of wood.

But photos of the suspect show that to be an understatement. I used the term brutalized earlier because it fits. And trust me, if the guy's guilty, I wouldn't have cared if he kicked the bucket the next day. And I'm not 100 percent against vigilante justice -- I just don't trust the masses to exact revenge.

The local ABC affiliate, meanwhile, brought us the rest of the story. The suspect was seriously beaten and left in critical condition at a local hospital, which arriving police brought him to when the attacking neighbors called 911. Police didn't even charge the guy for a couple days -- not sure why, but it struck me as odd.

Police and Mayor Michael Nutter (a fine mayor, in my view, voted in after eight years of suffering with an incumbant who was bad for the city) have lauded the capture and not spoken out against the methods. The vigilantes have received something like $6,000 apiece reward money for their action. And police have said no, they won't be charged.

But channel 6 (WPVI-TV, the ABC station in Philadelphia) did report through Dann Cuellar (among the best reporters in the television business -- his Facebook page is at http://www.facebook.com/home.php#/profile.php?id=1238112192&ref=ts) that another man was beaten by vigilantes who had the wrong guy. Will those guys be charged? The victim is pressing charges, but where will the case go?

And won't the police and media attitudes that endorse vigilantism spark more of the same? Much as I love the concept of neighbors banding together for a common cause, that cause needs to be positive and not motivated by a propensity to enjoy violence or the receipt of cash.

How does this relate to neighbor disputes and their resolution? Solutions to the growing neighbor dispute problem rely heavily on sensibility prevailing over stupidity and emotional kneejerk reaction. Police leaders and some reporters jumped on the bandwagon they perceived the public wanted to climb aboard themselves -- get the bad guy off the street. Hurt him if you have to. Hell, even if you don't have to.

And again, I have no bleeding heart for criminals. Let 'em fry. But our justice system is flawed enough without police and media boosting up of a group of people lacking sufficient information going around beating up people -- including a neighbor -- based on the notion he "might" be a suspect in a media-hyped crime.

Plenty of bad neighbors from my past could have used that as an excuse to attack me physically, and it's just a matter of time before we see not only a proliferation of vigilantism in the Philadelphia region, but disingenuine vigilantism. A "Get Out of Jail FREE" card is now on the board for people looking for kicks by kicking the shit out of someone. Anyone. Maybe me. Maybe you.

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