San Francisco vigilantes take the law into their own hands

San Francisco vigilantes take the law into their own hands

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An angry mob in San Francisco’s business district ”tries” two Australian suspects in the robbery and assault of C. When the makeshift jury deadlocked, the suspects were returned to law enforcement officials.

Jansen was working at his store at the corner of Montgomery and Washington when two men beat him unconscious and stole $2,000. Another merchant, William Coleman, then decided to play prosecutor and assembled judges and jury members from a crowd that had assembled at Portsmouth Square. Fortunately for the Australian suspects, the men who defended them got three jury members to agree that Jansen hadn’t been able to see the men who had robbed him clearly. Although some members of the mob wanted to hang the alleged thieves in spite of the verdict, the crowd dispersed.Later, however, local authorities convicted the men at a real trial in court.

Vigilantes were fairly common during the Gold Rush boom in San Francisco. One committee spent most of its time rooting out Australian ne’er-do-wells. They hanged four and tossed another 30 out of town. In 1856, a 6,000-member vigilante group was assembled after a couple of high-profile shooting incidents. This lynch mob hanged the suspects and then directed their attention to politics.

Such vigilante movements were generally popular all over the West in the middle and late 19th century. The San Francisco vigilantes were so well regarded that they took over the Democratic Party in the late 1850s and some became respected politicians.


Many frontier towns did not employ lawman. When the crime-rate increased dramatically some towns formed Vigilante Committees. Vigilante justice included whipping, banishment and death. One of the first Vigilante groups formed was in San Francisco in 1851. After hanging several criminals were hanged the committee was disbanded.

In May 1863, Henry Plumber was elected sheriff of Bannack . Unknown to the people of Bannack, Plummer was the leader a 100 man gang that were involved in local robberies. The gang wore ties in a special knot to identify fellow members and called themselves as the "Innocents". Crime in the town increased dramatically and in during the first couple of months after he was appointed, more than 100 citizens were murdered. A Vigilante Committee was formed and eventually a member of the Innocents confessed that Plummer was the gang's leader. On 10th January, 1864, Henry Plummer was lynched by the vigilantes.

A gang of criminals led by Frank Reno caused havoc in Indiana in the period following the American Civil War. In 1868 the Southern Indiana Vigilance Committee published a leaflet warning that they would take revenge if the Reno brothers continued to break the law.

Allan Pinkerton discovered the Reno gang planned to rob another train near Seymour. When the train was stopped, instead of gold, it contained Pinkerton and his men. After a gunfight the Reno brothers tried to escape from the scene of the crime. Three members of the gang were captured and lynched by a local vigilante group. Frank, William and Simeon Reno, as well as Michael Rogers, Miles Ogle, Charlie Anderson, Albert Parsons and Charles Spencer were also captured.

On 12th December, 1868, 56 hooded men entered New Albany jail. Frank Reno was the first to be dragged from his cell to be lynched. He was followed by his two brothers, William and Simeon. Another gang member, Charlie Anderson, was also hanged in the prison.

San Francisco vigilantes take the law into their own hands - HISTORY

In San Francisco, for example, the news of the discovery of gold to its north depleted its police force while simultaneously triggering an explosion in its population. (see The California Gold Rush, 1849) The resulting increase in crime and violence prompted the establishment of a Vigilante Committee to maintain law and order. The Committee was made up of 600 local volunteers, most of whom were prominent members of the business community. During its first year (1851), the Committee hanged four law breakers, whipped one, deported 20 and released 41 after trial. As a result, violent crime was reduced in the city. The Committee was disbanded within a year after its creation. It was revived five years later and disbanded the same year.

The remoteness of mining camps, often in politically unorganized territories, put them beyond the reach of the law. In this unruly environment, volunteers formed Committees of Vigilance that established basic rules of conduct and assured at least a minimum level of order. The community thus entrusted the Vigilante Committee with the combined responsibilities of judge, jury and executioner.

"They granted him a respite of three hours to prepare for his sudden entrance into eternity."

Mrs. Louise Clappe was the wife of a physician and lived in the mining area known as Indian Bar that bordered the Feather River in Northern California. In the period from 1851 to 1852 she wrote a number of letters to her sister in Massachusetts describing her experience. These letters were originally published in Pioneer Magazine (1854-55) and then as a book in 1922. A copy of this book resides in the Library of Congress.

In a letter written on December 14, 1851, Louise describes how the mining community established its own form of law and order:

The prosecutors still believed them guilty, and fancied that the gold was hidden in a coyote-hole near the camp from which it had been taken. They therefore watched the place narrowly while the suspected men remained on the Bar. They made no discoveries, however, and soon after the trial the acquitted persons left the mountains for Marysville.

A few weeks ago, one of these men returned, and has spent most of the time since his arrival in loafing about the different barrooms upon the river. He is said to have been constantly intoxicated. As soon as the losers of the gold heard of his return, they bethought themselves of the coyote-hole, and placed about its entrance some brushwood and stones in such a manner that no one could go into it without disturbing the arrangement of them. In the mean while the thief settled at Rich Bar, and pretended that he was in search of some gravel-ground for mining purposes.

A few mornings ago he returned to his boarding-place, which he had left some hour earlier, with a spade in his hand, and, as he laid it down, carelessly observed that he had been out prospecting. The losers of the gold went, immediately after breakfast, as they had been in the habit of doing, to see if all was right at the coyote-hole. On this fatal day they saw that the entrance had been disturbed, and going in, they found upon the ground a money-belt which had apparently just been cut open. Armed with this evidence of guilt, they confronted the suspected person and sternly accused him of having the gold in his possession. Singularly enough, he did not attempt a denial, but said that if they would not bring him to a trial (which of course they promised) he would give it up immediately. He then informed them that they would find it beneath the blankets of his bunk, as those queer shelves on which miners sleep, ranged one above another somewhat like the berths of a ship, are generally called. There, sure enough, were six hundred dollars of the missing money, and the unfortunate wretch declared that his partner had taken the remainder to the States.

A mining camp
By this time the exciting news had spread all over the Bar. A meeting of the miners was immediately convened, the unhappy man taken into custody, a jury chosen, and a judge, lawyer, etc., appointed. Whether the men who had just regained a portion of their missing property made any objections to the proceedings which followed, I know not. If they had done so, however, it would have made no difference, as the people had taken the matter entirely out of their hands.

At one o'clock, so rapidly was the trial conducted, the judge charged the jury, and gently insinuated that they could do no less than to bring in with their verdict of guilty a sentence of death! Perhaps you know that when a trial is conducted without the majesty of the law, the jury are (sic) compelled to decide not only upon the guilt of the prisoner, but the mode of his punishment also. After a few minutes' absence, the twelve men, who had consented to burden their souls with a responsibility so fearful, returned, and the foreman handed to the judge a paper, from which he read the will of the people, as follows: That William Brown, convicted of stealing, etc., should, in one hour from that time, be hung by the neck until he was dead.

By the persuasions of some men more mildly disposed, they granted him a respite of three hours to prepare for his sudden entrance into eternity. He employed the time in writing, in his native language (he is a Swede), to some friends in Stockholm. God help them when that fatal post shall arrive, for, no doubt, he also, although a criminal, was fondly garnered in many a loving heart.

He had exhibited, during the trial, the utmost recklessness and nonchalance, had drank many times in the course of the day, and when the rope was placed about his neck, was evidently much intoxicated. All at once, however, he seemed startled into a consciousness of the awful reality of his position, and requested a few moments for prayer.

The execution was conducted by the jury, and was performed by throwing the cord, one end of which was attached to the neck of the prisoner, across the limb of a tree standing outside of the Rich Bar graveyard, when all who felt disposed to engage in so revolting a task lifted the poor wretch from the ground in the most awkward manner possible. The whole affair, indeed, was a piece of cruel butchery, though that was not intentional, but arose from the ignorance of those who made the preparations. In truth, life was only crushed out of him by hauling the writhing body up and down, several times in succession, by the rope, which was wound round a large bough of his green-leaved gallows. Almost everybody was surprised at the severity of the sentence, and many, with their hands on the cord, did not believe even then that it would be carried into effect, but thought that at the last moment the jury would release the prisoner and substitute a milder punishment.

A vigilante court
in a mining camp
It is said that the crowd generally seemed to feel the solemnity of the occasion, but many of the drunkards, who form a large part of the community on these bars, laughed and shouted as if it were a spectacle got up for their particular amusement. A disgusting specimen of intoxicated humanity, struck with one of those luminous ideas peculiar to his class, staggered up to the victim, who was praying at the moment, and, crowding a dirty rag into his almost unconscious hand, in a voice broken by a drunken hiccough, tearfully implored him to take his "hankercher," and if he were innocent (the man had not denied his guilt since first accused), to drop it as soon as he was drawn up into the air, but if guilty, not to let it fall on any account.

The body of the criminal was allowed to hang for some hours after the execution. It had commenced storming in the earlier part of the evening, and when those whose business it was to inter the remains arrived at the spot, they found them enwrapped in a soft white shroud of feathery snow-flakes, as if pitying nature had tried to hide from the offended face of Heaven the cruel deed which her mountain-children had committed."

Clappe, Louise Amelia Knapp Smith, The Shirley Letters from California Mines in 1851-52, ed. by Thomas C. Russell (1922) Davis, William C. and Joseph Rosa (eds.), The West (1994) Grafton, John, The American West in the Nineteenth Century (1992).


Vigilantism is the act of taking the law into one's own hands and attempting to effect justice according to one's own understanding of right and wrong. Vigilantism can also consist of action taken by a voluntary association of persons who organize themselves for the purpose of protecting a common interest, such as liberty, property, or personal security action taken by an individual or group to protest existing law action taken by an individual or group to enforce a higher law than that enacted by society's designated lawmaking institutions or private enforcement of legal norms in the absence of an established, reliable, and effective law enforcement body.

The foundation of the American legal system rests on the rule of law , a concept embodied in the notion that the United States is a nation of laws and not of men. Under the rule of law, laws are thought to exist independent of, and separate from, human will. Even when the human element factors into legal decision making, the decision maker is expected to be constrained by the law in making his or her decision. In other words, police officers, judges, and juries should act according to the law and not according to their personal preferences or private agendas.

State and federal governments are given what amounts to a monopoly over the use of force and violence to implement the law. Private citizens may use force and violence to defend their lives and their property, and in some instances the lives and property of others, but they must do so under the specific circumstances allowed by the law if they wish to avoid being prosecuted for a crime themselves. Private individuals may also make "citizen arrests," but the circumstances in which the law authorizes them to do so are very narrow. Citizens are often limited to making arrests for felonies committed in their presence. By taking law into their own hands, vigilantes flout the rule of law, effectively becoming lawmaker, police officer, judge, jury, and appellate court for the cause they are pursuing.

The history of vigilantism in the United States is as old as the country itself. In many ways, the history of the United States began with vigilantism. On December 16, 1773, American colonists, tired of British direct taxation, took part in what came to be known as the Boston Tea Party. As part of the resistance, they threw 342 chests of tea into Boston Harbor.

During the 1830s, so-called "vigilance committees" formed in the South to protect the institution of slavery against encroachment by abolitionists, who were routinely assaulted, tarred and feathered, and otherwise terrorized by these committees with the acquiescence of local law enforcement personnel. After slavery was abolished, southern vigilante groups, such as the Ku Klux Klan , sought to continue white dominance over freed blacks by using lynching and other forms of intimidation that were prohibited by law. During the second half of the twentieth century, African-American vigilantes wantonly destroyed symbols of white authority and property associated with white society in retaliation for the injuries and indignities caused by racial segregation and discrimination.

Vigilantism continues to metamorphose. Private watch groups patrol their neighborhoods to guard against criminal activity. Antiabortion extremists commit deadly attacks against family health care clinics and family health care workers, often in the name of religion. Environmental activists inflict economic losses on companies by obstructing lawful business activities that they think will cause harm to the air, water, or land. Every day people use force and violence to exact revenge against someone whom they believe has done them wrong. In each case, vigilantes take it upon themselves to enact justice, rather than enlist police officers, lawyers, judges, and the rest of the established legal machinery to do the job. And, in each case, vigilantes risk starting a cycle of violence and lawlessness in which the victims of vigilantism take the law into their own hands to exact pay-back.

The motivations underlying acts of vigilantism vary according to the individual vigilante. Some vigilantes seek to carry out personal agendas to protest existing law. Others seek to enforce existing law as they interpret, define, or understand it. Still others seek to implement or call attention to some kind of higher law that they feel overrules the norms established by society's designated lawmaking institutions. Since no state or federal jurisdiction offers any kind of "vigilante defense" to criminal prosecution, vigilantes must rely on the moral rectitude of their cause to justify their acts. Yet the morality of most acts of vigilantism is relative to whether one is the perpetrator or victim of vigilantism, as the targets of vigilantism rarely agree that the acts were justified.

The moral relativity associated with vigilantism is not as evident in less technological societies where vigilantism is simply equated with action taken by private residents to maintain security and order in the community, or to otherwise promote community welfare. For example, during much of the nineteenth century, local governments in the western United States were decentralized and loosely organized at best. As part of this often makeshift political order, certain individuals or groups of individuals took it upon themselves to provide summary justice for alleged victims of criminal activity. Some of the individuals accused of wrongdoing, and rounded up by this posse-style system of justice, were no doubt unhappy with the justice that was dispensed. However, these vigilante groups were prevalent in this particular region of the country, making them the norm and not the exception. As a result, such groups were typically more widely accepted than vigilante movements from other eras.

An expanded vigilantism definition would include its more recent, technology-based form known as internet vigilantism. Internet vigilantism utilizes web-based applications such as email and social media to take a stance or make a statement on issues ranging from anti-scam, anti-crime, anti-racism, anti-government vigilantism or a number of other issues.

Why Our Flawed Justice System Breeds ‘Shadow’ Vigilantes

What do Three Strikes laws, mandatory-minimums for drug offenders, the Stop Snitching campaign, and private police have in common? According to Paul H. Robinson, a law professor at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, they are all expressions of a “shadow” vigilantism that has spread in the contemporary U.S.—usually in response to perceived failures in the justice system.

The forthcoming Shadow Vigilantes: How Distrust in the Justice System Breeds a New Kind of Lawlessness, which Robinson co-authored with Sarah, M. Robinson, a former sergeant in the US Army and social worker, explores how the impulse to take the law into their own hands has been a feature of Americans’ behavior since the Revolution.

In a conversation with TCR’s Julia Pagnamenta, Robinson explains why the history of vigilantism is more nuanced than the traditional view which defines vigilantes as groups like the KKK and white supremacists, and why vigilantism will continue to operate when disenfranchised individuals in society feel that the system is ignoring their concerns.

The Crime Report: Your book suggests that acts of vigilantism are very much tied to early American history. Can you explain?

Paul H. Robinson: Vigilantism certainly has, and for many good reasons, a very bad reputation. People tend to associate it with some horrendous Klu Klux Klan lynching. But of course it’s also true that it has somewhat more admirable roots in other places as well. The original American Revolution was really an act of vigilantism where the colonists thought they were being treated badly. England had not kept its end of the social contract, so they took the law into their own hands in the very dramatic way of declaring independence.

Another example is the story of the gold miners in San Francisco. This was a city overwhelmed by an influx of people either headed towards the gold hills in California or providing services in San Francisco to people headed to the gold hills, and with the swell of population came a government that for the most part was corrupt. The San Francisco vigilance committee formed itself from a large group of citizens who in very public ways went after criminals and held public trials completely independent of the official authorities. When they really did bring order back to the city, and once the government actually matured enough so that it wasn’t just a bunch of corrupt scoundrels, the vigilance committee disbanded itself.

TCR: You also mention a line in the U.S. Constitution that refers to the recourse that the American people can take when the government breaches its promise to protect its citizens.

Robinson: Given what the creation story was for the United States, it is no surprise to find some language in the Constitution that specifically seems to support and recognize the legitimacy of some forms of vigilantism. This is a larger theme of the book: to say there really is such a thing in some circumstances as moral vigilantism. There are a lot of stories about the gay community in San Francisco being openly beaten where police ignore the anti-gay crimes. The same occurred in the South with the civil rights workers: blacks who were being victimized because of their civil rights leadership.

We have some modern-day stories about women in India who organized a vigilante group acting against men who publicly assaulted and groped women, and the police did little or nothing about it, and quite a few other stories where it’s hard not to read the story, see the extent of the victimization, see the extent of the violation of social contract by inherently indifferent police and authorities, and not be sympathetic to these groups that then openly become vigilantes.

TCR: Although the history of vigilantism in this country is more nuanced than the Klu Klux Klan, the history of white supremacist groups terrorizing and killing African-Americans is very much a part of American history… and one that is still playing out today.

Robinson: Those groups can’t claim to be vigilantes: nobody is victimizing them. Their expression of violence is just a product of their own racial bias. In that sort of situation you might well have some claim to moral vigilantism on part of the black community if the police weren’t taking seriously enough their victimization. Luckily, we are doing a little better than we were back in the Civil Rights era and the South, where a lot of civil rights groups did have to form their own vigilante groups to protect themselves.

The criminal justice system does take seriously that kind of victimization and is making prosecutions and providing protection so that we can avoid the need for black victims to form their own vigilante groups. Obviously, it’s an imperfect process at the moment, but certainly authorities are doing a better job now than they did before.

TCR: Victimhood is crucial to understanding vigilantism. How do these two terms interconnect, or rather, how does one affect the other?

Robinson: Well certainly the victims themselves can feel the sting and frustration of the failures of justice in ways that other people can’t, and they may have the greatest motivation to become vigilantes. Whether it’s classic vigilantes or shadow vigilantes.

Human beings are built in a way that they care deeply about doing justice and avoiding injustice, and when they see that in the world around them, they are going to want to hold somebody accountable. If the criminal justice system is doing the best it can, they are willing to cut it a break and say, you know, it’s certainly trying. It’s very difficult to accurately reconstruct past events. We can’t expect it to be perfect. But when they see a criminal justice system that seems to be willfully frustrating justice, we know exactly what happened, we have compelling evidence of what happened, and we are still going to let this person walk away with no punishment, although they are clearly a rapist, or a murderer. What does that say?

TCR: Indeed, a theme in the book is the recurring ineffectiveness of government authorities in carrying out justice, especially for African-American communities.

Robinson: Right, that’s a classic invitation to moral vigilantism when it’s clear that the system isn’t going to do anything about it, and in fact is going to be complicit in the victimization itself.

TCR: You open the book with a harrowing example of a domestic abuse case. Maybe the criminal justice system shouldn’t handle cases of domestic abuse?

Robinson: I am not entirely sure I agree with that. To the extent that there are other institutions outside the criminal justice system that can attempt to reduce crime, reduce domestic violence or sexual violence, that’s wonderful, absolutely, let’s do that, but at the end of the day there is a social contract, and the criminal justice system has to step-up and provide that sort of protection. I think domestic violence is an example of how for decades the criminal justice system miserably failed. I mean there are some classic cases. The Torrington Police [in Connecticut] watched a woman [Tracey Thurman] get beat by her husband in front of them and it’s the umpteenth time that he’s done this, and they just stand around and watch.

Well, are we surprised that she, and most of the people she’s talked to, are just horribly offended with the police and the criminal justice system? Are we surprised that they don’t have the slightest confidence in the fairness and justice and effectiveness of that system? Are surprised that they would be happy to distort the system as needed from their point of view if that’s what was necessary to get the system to take this domestic violence more seriously? No, I think that’s human nature. I think that shadow vigilantism is a natural response to any time the criminal justice system systematically, apparently willingly, fails to do justice.

TCR: Right. You provide examples in the book where private citizens did take matters into their own hands and government agencies tacitly condoned their actions.

Robinson: Yes, I mean the first half of the book is really about this struggle to recognize the legitimacy of vigilantism in these special cases, and at the same time to recognize that it’s very easy for vigilantism to slip past the boundaries of moral justification.

Once you’ve passed that signpost of what’s lawful and what’s criminal, and once you’ve justified moving into doing what’s criminal because you believe that you were morally justified as a vigilante to act or protect yourself, it’s very hard to know exactly where to stop. It’s very easy for a group to say, well, that didn’t work. Let’s do a little more. In fact, one of the chapters in the book is about reactions of communities to apparent police indifference to the increased use of drugs as essentially destroying their community, and some groups will certainly push back when the police don’t respond and seem indifferent to the damage that is being done to the community. They may step a little over the vigilante line by confronting drug dealers or crack houses.

I think one of the larger lessons from that is just to illustrate how easy it is once you’ve crossed that line to justify doing just a little more, and therefore always worrying whether you’ve passed the point about what is morally justifiable.

TCR: Do you see a correlation between this sort of vigilantism, of taking justice in your own hands, and the U.S. relationship with guns?

Robinson: I don’t see that connection. There are a lot of groups who have no particular interest in the Second Amendment, but who can say with some legitimate claim that the government has breached its social contract with them, and whether they care about the Second Amendment or not they are put in a difficult, if not impossible situation.

There’s a separate issue in moral vigilantism that is worth mentioning: even if a group is morally justified under their own terms, it’s simply from a larger societal point of view, a bad way to solve the problem of that group that is being victimized.

So, for example, one of the stories in the book is about a neighborhood that has a serious crime problem. They get together and create a neighborhood watch group that is fairly aggressive and they are actually extremely successful at reducing crime in their neighborhood, which you might see as a huge success story. This neighborhood watch group qualifies as vigilantes because they go a little outside the law sometimes, they are stepping in and doing what they think the police should be doing, but when you step back and look at the larger situation what you find is that [while] it’s now a better world for them because their crime rate is down so much, what in fact has happened is a lot of that crime has simply been pushed off into neighboring communities that don’t have as an effective neighborhood watch.

One of the problems of individual group vigilante action is that it’s not done at a larger stage, or national, or even city level, so it has that potential of simply solving the problem for one group at the expense of neighboring groups, and while it’s hard to deny that this is moral vigilante action, from a larger societal point of view it’s not a good solution.

Better that the government do that, extend more resources if need be, undertake the policy that we are better at reducing crime and apply that policy to all communities in the area. So it’s not a matter of just pushing the crime next door, but rather preventing it. That’s just an example of how, even if on its own terms moral vigilantism seems morally justifiable, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s good for society.

TCR: You write about the 1993 kidnapping and murder of twelve-year-old Polly Klaas in Petaluma, California. Was the response to Klaas’ murder an example of a moral panic, in which a horrifying act became politicized and had devastating repercussions for people who found themselves swept up in this new tough-on- crime initiative?

Robinson: Let me go back and introduce this notion of the shadow vigilante. The moral vigilantes we’ve been talking about so far are classic vigilantes in the sense that they are themselves going out into the street and using force, and otherwise breaking laws, and sort of substituting for the police. They are doing what they think the police and the criminal justice system should be doing. But in some ways, that takes an unusual individual. Most of us just aren’t programmed to go out and become criminals ourselves.

However, the same frustrations that generate classic vigilantism also generate shadow vigilantism. They don’t go out into the streets, but what they do is less obvious, and in ways that don’t endanger them personally nearly as much. They nonetheless act in a way that undermines the criminal justice process: they try to subvert the process to push it to do what they think it should be doing. They manipulate the criminal justice process, and this I would argue happens a lot because it’s easy for people to do, there is nothing on the line.

Ordinary people have a role in the criminal justice process. Are they going to decide to report a crime that they see? Are they going to help investigators? Are they going to as jurors follow their jury instructions, or are they going to ignore the law and do what they want? Or in a grand jury, are they going to follow their legal instructions?

Or are they going to, for example, support policies like (California’s) Three Strikes law that seem like obvious overreach? A lot of its political support comes from people who are frustrated because they don’t see the current system as effectively dealing with the kind of offenses that now have mandatory minimums, and the kinds of offenders that fall under Three Strikes.

The problem with shadow vigilantes is that they are much more dangerous because they are much more common, and because there is not much you can do about them. And it all happens in the shadows, so you don’t even know it’s going on, and it’s not just ordinary citizens. Shadow vigilantism is something that is inspired by participants in the process as well, whether you are talking about police or prosecutors, or sometimes with the acquiescence of judges.

TCR: How does law enforcement contribute to shadow vigilantism? What are the implications on the criminal justice system as a whole?

Robinson: To give an example, police “testilying” is a phrase invented by New York police officers, invented because they wanted to distinguish regular lying under oath, which they considered entirely inappropriate, to lying with regard to, for example, what they considered the technicalities of the very obscure search and seizure rules.

This is just an example of a shadow vigilante who is frustrated by the systems, sort of an intentional failure of justice. This is how they respond. It’s not going out into the streets, and getting in fights, rather it is manipulating and distorting the system so that system will be more likely to impose the deserved justice that they think should be imposed.

TCR: Search and seizure rules are a point of contention between crime control and civil liberties advocates. What is your perpective?

Robinson: I would say, first, you can’t have a civilized, liberal democracy without having some form of Fourth Amendment that limits police intrusion in our personal lives. I mean that’s absolutely essential, and you need a way to enforce those rights. You can’t just have the Fourth Amendment on the books and then do nothing about it, so police are sort of free to intrude wherever they want, and though it’s a violation of the rules of the books, they can get away with it because there is no enforcement. There has to be some kind of enforcement mechanism. However, when we adopt the exclusionary rule as our enforcement mechanism [this] is a rule that on its face is designed to frustrate justice.

At the very least I would say this: every time we adopt a rule that we know is going to frustrate punishing people to the extent that they deserve it, no more, no less, every time we adopt a just as frustrating rule, we ought to understand that there is a hidden cost. That every time we do that the moral credibility of the system is undermined and people are going to be less likely to defer to it, to give it some kind of moral authority. Every time we approve these frustrating doctrines we are much more likely to inspire shadow vigilantes to feel morally justified in distorting the law to their own purposes.

I think it’s no coincidence that the Three Strikes doctrine, these mandatory minimums, are a problem that we currently have after a decade or more of the system’s reputation for letting people off on technicalities or tolerating really inconsistent sentencing where if you get the right judge you can walk away without no punishment at all. Once the system’s credibility for giving just punishment is undermined, well surprise, surprise, we know have these distortions in the other direction.

Part of the problem with shadow vigilantism is that it promotes a really damaging response. Once you have a system where everybody knows that there is this police “testilying,” everybody knows there are these mandatory sentences, and that these Three Strikes mechanisms are generating sentences that are well beyond what the community thinks is really just, once you have that kind of distorted system, are you surprised that there is then a backlash?

TCR: The Stop Snitching campaign arose from a mistrust of the police in some communities. Is that another example of the backlash you describe?

Robinson: The Stop Snitching campaign is a tragic development, because, of course, all it’s going to do is to reduce the effectiveness of crime control and make things worse, and increase victimization. It’s outrageous how the black victimization rates are dramatically higher. That’s a walking tragedy, but you can understand where Stop Snitching came from. You have a system that has a built-in police “testilying,” plus exaggerated punishment routinely under Three Strikes and mandatory minimums. Are we surprised then that there are some neighborhoods where the system is the enemy? No. The distortions that shadow vigilantism creates inspire its own backlash through Stop Snitching, and a lot of other ways that people think that they then have a reason to undermine the system further and it’s a downward spiral.

TCR: There is a lot of emphasis in the book on the failures of the criminal justice system being tied to offenders not receiving just punishment for crimes they committed, but the opposite argument can be made, that the U.S. criminal justice systems is one of the most punitive in the world. Can this in itself not be considered a failure of justice?

Robinson: Frankly, yes, I think that’s right. (Our system) tends to have exaggerated punishment at the high end, but in part I think that is a product of this shadow vigilantism distortion process that I talk about in the book. Having all those exaggerated penalties is a product in part of the frustration of the system not imposing punishment that was deserved. You know, we could have skipped that whole couple of decades where individual judges were free to just let murderers walk well we could have saved ourselves a lot of the headaches that we have know with these crazy mandatory minimums.

TCR: What decades are you referring to?

Paul H. Robinson: Well, this is back in the 60s and 70s, before the advent of sentencing guidelines, there was an enormous amount of judicial discretion allowed. We thought it was quite justified. The problem of course was that a lot judges were quite idiosyncratic in both directions unfortunately, but the fact is that when ordinary people see that kind of disparity in sentencing, [they] are offended on both ends, and not just offended when somebody gets a lot more punishment than they deserve, they are also offended by people getting a lot less punishment than they deserve, and they are likely to react to what they see as the dysfunction in the process. One of the ways to react to people getting a lot less punishment than they deserve is to put in a set of mandatory minimums, which I think is tragic.

TCR: Do you think that the recourse to privatizing sectors of the criminal justice system leads to increased vigilantism?

Robinson: There are many more private police than public police. We really have privatized policing in many areas. Certainly the motivation for hiring private police is that you don’t trust the public police, but there are unfortunate consequences that come from that, and one of the unfortunate consequences, of course, is that you can get effective policing only if you can financially afford it. If you can live in one of those communities that can afford private policing, well great, if you don’t, well then you’re screwed.

This is in part what contributes to the dramatic over-victimization of black communities. Most black neighborhoods are dependent on public policing. In a perfect world, we would have a public police department that was effective enough in a criminal justice system with policing rules and exclusionary rules that cared enough about justice so that public police could be effective enough that everybody would find the services they offer to be acceptable. We’d have no further need for private policing and everybody was assured of that same minimum level of protection.

Julia Pagnamenta is a news intern with TCR. Readers’ comments are welcome.

Vigilante justice

THERE'S A lot that bothers us about the lenient sentence given to vi gilante Douglas Chin, who waged a potentially deadly one-man crusade against prostitution in his Mission District neighborhood.

In the first place, Chin is being treated as a kind of hero. He's not.

He took the law into his own hands, and he was lucky he didn't kill anyone with his stupid stunt of hurling 8-inch bars of rebar steel from a rooftop 40 feet above the cars of men he believed were cruising for streetwalkers.

Chin was released from jail Monday after serving 120 days because a San Francisco jury decided he was guilty of four misdemeanor counts of assault and throwing objects at moving cars, instead of the four felony counts the district attorney's office had charged him with - which could have meant seven years behind bars.

Superior Court Judge Jack Berman then sentenced Chin to time served and he was freed. The judge said he agreed with the jury's verdict.

Chin didn't show contrition.

"I would not do it again," he said, "but I'm glad I did do it." He also said that, considering the sex trade outside his window had kept him awake for 10 years, four months in jail "was well worth it."

His lawyer, Franz Fuetsch, called the soft verdict "a vindication."

Chin, a usually mild-mannered 46-year-old engineer, was fed up with prostitution in his neighborhood around 19th and Capp streets, and he was disgusted with the inability of Mayor Brown and District Attorney Terence Hallinan to do anything to clear up the problem. So, he became a vigilante "either to get rid of the johns or be arrested so I [could] bring the matter to a court of law."

In San Francisco, apparently, it's OK to commit serious crimes in defense of your neighborhood. It's also OK to put people's lives in jeopardy if your cause has a moral justification behind it. And it's triply OK to break the law if you can't get the attention of public officials.

What utter nonsense. Chin and his lawyer dished it out - and a jury and Judge Berman ate it up.

SAN FRANCISCO / Recalling the end of the Wild West / 150 years ago, the 2nd Committee of Vigilance dissolved itself

2 of 11 VIGILANTES_066_KW_.jpg On Thursday August 17, 2006 Mission Dolores Museum Curator Andrew Galvan looks at the grave site of James "Yankee" Sullivan, on of three victims of the vigilantes committee from the 1800's burried here who's headstone reads "died by the hand of the v.c. May, 31, 1856. Tomorrow is the 150th anniversary of the end of the vigilante era in San Francisco August 18, 1856. Kat Wade/The Chronicle **Andrew Galvan (Subject) cq Mandatory Credit for San Francisco Chronicle and photographer, Kat Wade, Mags out Kat Wade Show More Show Less

4 of 11 Execution of Brace and Hetherington, by the Vigilance Committee of San Francisco July 29, 1856. Wyland Stanley Collection Show More Show Less


5 of 11 A small group of admires of the past gather at the Mission Dolores cemetery to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the end of the vigilante era in San Francisco. On this day day in 1856, thousands of armed men paraded through the streets of SF and then formally dissolved the second Committee of Vigilance. 8/18/06 Frederic Larson Show More Show Less


7 of 11 At James Casey grave site a small group of admires of the past gather at the Mission Dolores cemetery to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the end of the vigilante era in San Francisco. On this day day in 1856, thousands of armed men paraded through the streets of SF and then formally dissolved the second Committee of Vigilance. Supervior James Casey and Chatles Cora, a gambler. Both men were hanged by vigilantes. 8/18/06 Frederic Larson Show More Show Less


8 of 11 A small group of admires of the past gather at the Mission Dolores cemetery to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the end of the vigilante era in San Francisco. On this day day in 1856, thousands of armed men paraded through the streets of SF and then formally dissolved the second Committee of Vigilance. The group standing by James Sullivan grave site who was a boxer and also died in vigilante hands. Some said it was suicide or drink, but the cause is still a mystery. the vigilantes, now 8,000 song then took control of the city. 8/18/06 Frederic Larson Show More Show Less


10 of 11 David Dibble bought with him a metal to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the end of the vigilante era in San Francisco. On this day day in 1856, thousands of armed men paraded through the streets of SF and then formally dissolved the second Committee of Vigilance. 8/18/06 Frederic Larson Show More Show Less

A small group of admirers of the past will gather at the Mission Dolores cemetery at about 9 this morning to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the end of the vigilante era in San Francisco.

On this day in 1856, thousands of armed men paraded through the streets of San Francisco and then formally dissolved the second Committee of Vigilance.

The vigilantes, mostly respectable business leaders and merchants, had taken the law into their own hands for nearly four months in San Francisco, hanging four men, including a city supervisor, and had been mixed up in the death of James "Yankee" Sullivan, one of the most famous bare-knuckle fighters of his day.

They had also threatened a number of other San Franciscans and banished hundreds of other tough characters. They ran the city with an iron hand, much to the distress of Mayor James Van Ness and William T. Sherman, a militia officer who later became one of the most famous of Civil War generals.

The final chapter of the vigilante era was the end of the wild West in San Francisco. Never again did the citizens of the city take the law into their own hands.

"Although the entire idea of vigilante justice may be foreign to us today, it played a historic role in the American experience, especially in the West," said David Crosson, executive director of the California Historical Society.

"This is a damned important thing," said Neil Malloch, a local historian who is organizing today's event, which includes a tour of three San Francisco sites central to the vigilante history.

The tour starts at the graveyard at Mission Dolores -- the oldest building in the city -- which is really the end of the story. Here are the graves of Supervisor James Casey and Charles Cora, a gambler. Both men were hanged by the vigilantes. There is also the grave of James Sullivan, a boxer who died while in vigilante custody.

"May God forgive my tormentors" says the inscription on Casey's grave. "Died by the hands of the V.C. May 31, 1856," Sullivan's tombstone says.

The vigilante era is so long ago, said Andrew Galvan, the curator of Mission Dolores, that most tourists think the "V.C." on Sullivan's tombstone refers to the Viet Cong.

"These graves are pilgrim spots on the tourist track of San Francisco," Galvan said.

The story began in the winter of 1855, when San Francisco was in the middle of a huge crime wave. That year, San Francisco had about 60,000 people -- and a murder rate that was about 10 times the modern rate. Nearly everyone carried guns the city government was in the hands of a political machine, and thugs ruled the streets.

"The city had been taken over by the no-gooders," said Gladys Hansen, a former city archivist whose Internet museum of San Francisco has a number of items on the vigilantes. "Something had to be done."

In 1855, an editor with the curious name of James King of William started the Evening Bulletin, a small but important crusading newspaper. One of his targets was Casey, a supervisor who had been elected by stuffing the ballot box.

King wrote that Casey, supposedly an honest citizen, was an ex-con who had served time in New York's infamous Sing Sing Prison. Casey took great offense, and shot King as he was leaving his office on Montgomery Street, near Washington Street.

Ten thousand people, it was said, gathered on the streets awaiting word of King's condition. When he died a few days later, members of an earlier vigilante group, under the leadership of William Tell Coleman, a prominent businessman, met and decided to act.

There were 3,500 members of the Committee of Vigilance, at first, each man sworn by an oath of fealty, each man given a number. Coleman was No. 1. They were armed and they had a cannon in case it was necessary to knock down the doors of the county jail on Broadway.

Casey was held by Sheriff David Scannell, whom the vigilantes suspected of being a political ally. The crowd of vigilantes marched to the jail, and the sheriff turned Casey over to them. Later, the committee also took Charles Cora, a noted gambler who had shot a U.S. marshal for insulting his mistress.

There was a short trial the vigilantes were the judge and jury. Only two days after King died, and just as his funeral procession was getting under way, Casey and Cora were taken out of the vigilante headquarters at Sacramento Street near Davis Street and hanged.

The American Cowboy Chronicles

The world will never see another California. Great gold stampedes there may be, but under conditions far different from those of 1849. Transportation has been so developed travel has become so swift and easy, that no section can now long remain segregated from the rest of the world.

The whole structure of civilization, itself based upon transportation, goes swiftly forward with that transportation, and the tent of the miner or adventurer finds immediately erected by its side the temple of the law.

It was not thus in those early days of our Western history. The law was left far behind by geography and wilderness travel. Thousands of honest men pressed on across the plains and mountains inflamed, it is true, by the madness of the lust for gold, but carrying at the outset no wish to escape from the watchfulness of the law.

With them, went equal numbers of those eager to escape all restraints of society and law, men intending never to aid in the uprearing of the social system in new wild lands.

Both these elements, the law-loving and the law-hating, as they advanced farther and farther from the staid world which they had known, noticed the development of a strange phenomenon: that law, which they had left behind them, waned in importance with each passing day. The standards of the old home changed, even as customs changed.

A week's journey from the settlements showed the Argonaut a new world. A month hedged it about to itself, alone, apart, with ideas and values of its own and independent of all others. A year sufficed to leave that world as distinct as though it occupied a planet all its own. For that world the divine fire of the law must be re-discovered, evolved, nay, evoked fresh from chaos even as the savage calls forth fire from the dry and sapless twigs of the wilderness.

In the gold country all ideas and principles were based upon new conditions. Precedents did not exist. Man had gone savage again, and it was the beginning. Yet this savage, willing to live as a savage in a land which was one vast encampment, was the Anglo-Saxon savage, and therefore carried with him that chief trait of the American character, the principle that what a man earns -- not what he steals, but what he earns -- is his and his alone.

This principle sowed in ground forbidding and unpromising was the seed of the law out of which has sprung the growth of a mighty civilization fit to be called an empire of its own. The growth and development of law under such conditions offered phenomena not recorded in the history of any other land or time.

In the first place, and even while in transit, men organized for the purpose of self-protection, and in this necessary act, law-abiding and criminal elements united. After arriving at the scenes of the gold fields, such organization was forgotten even the parties that had banded together in the Eastern states as partners rarely kept together for a month after reaching the region where luck, hazard and opportunity, inextricably blended, appealed to each man to act for himself and with small reference to others.

Against this manner of government presently arose the organizations of the law-abiding, the justice-loving, and these took the law into their own stern hands. The executive officers of the law, the sheriffs and constables, were in league to kill and confiscate and against these the new agency of the actual law made war, constituting themselves into an arm of essential government, and openly called themselves Vigilantes.

In turn, criminals used the cloak of the Vigilantes to cover their own deeds of lawlessness and violence. The Vigilantes purged themselves of the false members, and carried their own title of shameful conduct, the "stranglers," with unconcern or pride.

Seek as you may today, you will never know the full roster of their names, although they made no concealment of their identity and no one, to this day, has ever been able to determine who took the first step in their organization.

They began their labors in California at a time when there had been more than two thousand murders-- five hundred in one year -- and not five legal executions. Their task included the erection of a fit structure of the law, and, incidentally, the destruction of a corrupt and unworthy structure claiming the title of the law.

In this strange, swift panorama there is all the story of the social system, all the picture of the building of that temple of the law which, as Americans, we now revere, or, at times, still despise and desecrate.

Our great cities of the East are practically all governed, so far as they are governed at all, by civic leagues, civic federations, citizens' leagues, business men's associations -- all protests at non-enforcement of the law. This protest in '49 and on the Pacific Coast took a sterner form.

At one time the city of San Francisco had three separate and distinct city councils, each claiming to be the only legal one. In spite of the new state organization, the law was much a matter of go as you please. Under such conditions it was no wonder that outlawry began to show its head in bold and well-organized forms.

So now, while far to the east, Congress was hotly arguing the question of the admission of California as a state, she was beginning to show an interest in law and justice when aroused thereto.

-- end of Part One, The Vigilantes Of California

The Vigilantes Of California, Part Two

Emerson Hough was born in 1857 and passed away in 1923. He was an American author, Western Historian, best known for writing western stories and historical novels.

One such novel is titled The Story of the Outlaw which was first published by the Curtis Publishing Co. in 1905 and then published again by the Outing Publishing Company, New York, in 1907.

As with all of his books, from outlaws to border wars, from vigilantes to lawmen, The Story of the Outlaw includes historical narratives of the American West. The Vigilantes Of California is a chapter in that novel. Because of my Blog's limited space, I'm posting this chapter in four parts.

Since Emerson Hough is known to have written factual accounts, I hope you enjoy the historical accuracy of what took place in the American West.

Contributing Factors

Vigilantism does not occur in a vacuum. Certain factors facilitate the development and growth of vigilante activities. For example, Good Samaritan laws, views on self-defense, attitudes toward firearms for self-protection, and the importance of property rights can create an atmosphere in which individuals feel they have the right to adopt unconventional means for protection. This is especially true when they believe that the state can no longer offer them the safety and sense of justice they desire. With vigilantes, protection becomes a matter of survival and self-responsibility. For example, in recent years, the computer world has seen the rise of “digilantism,” which is a form of digital vigilantism. Individuals who engage in this type of behavior purposefully seek out transgressors in the digital arena and punish them with malicious computer codes and viruses. Digilantism is considered necessary to establish order in an arena without a formal monitoring system and to protect those wishing to utilize computers and the Internet without having to fear digital aggression.

Neighbors have always been able to spy on you. Watchful eyes behind curtains eventually turned into security cameras on porches. But these forms of self-protection have always been limited to what people can see and identify. But what happens when you fuse startup culture, artificial intelligence, and fearful neighbors? Call it the rise of networked vigilante surveillance. And we’re not prepared for it.

A new venture called Flock Safety is a good example of the problem. The Atlanta-based company sells a particular vision of security: Residents can track every single car that passes through their neighborhood with the help of the company’s automatic license plate readers. As the Los Angeles Times recently reported, a two-year contract entitles you to the cameras, cloud storage for the data, and, most importantly, software that allows quick identification of license plates—completing a task in seconds that would take a person hours or days. (It’s not necessary for a whole neighborhood to agree to adopt the system, as long as some neighbors agree to pay for it.) If a crime happens within the neighborhood, residents can check and see which cars were captured by the cameras in the area at the time. Imagine being able to produce a detailed map of one car’s whereabouts. Residents can send videos to the police, and the police can presumably request data from residents. Although the data is stored on the company’s servers, residents own the data, according to the company’s website.

In this way, suspicious neighbors are just catching up to the police, repo agents, and property managers, who already have access to license plate readers that can capture data at rates of thousands of plates per minute. Flock essentially tells potential customers: If these are useful tools for safety, shouldn’t individuals and communities have them, too? And like many other surveillance products sold to the police and the public, it promotes surveillance as a service with a for-profit motive. The company begin as a 2017 Y Combinator startup and has since raised millions in venture capital funding from Peter Thiel’s Founders Fund, among others. Its website promises to “increase solvability around crime with infrastructure-free [automatic license plate readers] in your community.”

The drive to move fast and sell quickly is especially ill-suited to a product of mass surveillance controlled by your neighbors. Maybe your neighborhood would have a trusted group soliciting input from everyone about how to run its ALPR network before signing up. Or maybe it wouldn’t. Maybe your systems administrator is the most ethical person on the block. Or maybe you grant everyone in the neighborhood access to the footage, as Flock permits. Flock provides a product it doesn’t provide training in the law or in ethics. Nor would we expect it to—civilians aren’t law enforcement professionals.

But unleashing an automatic license plate reader system to groups of private citizens with a handshake and a contract means these systems are ripe for abuse. Once some residents in your neighborhood can track every license plate, they will face some unsavory temptations. Imagine a neighbor who wants a shot-by-shot map of the whereabouts of a spouse, a neighborhood child, or an unconventional resident. Or someone who wants to count the times your “suspicious” friends have come to visit the neighborhood. While automatic license plate reader cameras are sold as a crime prevention measure, there’s nothing to stop their use as tools of harassment or stalking.

And sometimes the software will be plain wrong. There is little for the wrongly accused people to clear their names. As for Flock? It’s not the company’s problem. As its head of marketing states, using the software inappropriately would be a “breach of contract.” But that is hardly a mechanism for accountability.

There seems little to stop those impulses from becoming even worse when social media can amplify some of our worst social traits. Why not collect lists of “suspicious” cars and plates and post them on Facebook or NextDoor? Why not combine these lists with videos from Ring video doorbells? If you’re the lone neighbor who doesn’t want any part of this, you have little choice other than to leave your community altogether. That is, if you even know your neighbors have installed an ALPR system.

The direct marketing of such products to individuals raises perhaps the most worrisome concern: encouraging vigilantism. These extralegal movements, organized to take the law into one’s own hands, have long been with us. Think back to Bernie Goetz in 1980s New York, the North Ward Citizens’ Committee in 1960s Newark, and even further back to the San Francisco Vigilance Committee of 1856. Or just remember the tragic circumstances of Trayvon Martin’s death at the hands of George Zimmerman, who was a neighborhood watch volunteer. Now imagine a community automatic license plate reader network that issues a BOLO (“be on the lookout”) for a particular car. Then what?

Vigilante justice arises when people feel the usual methods of addressing crime are broken or flawed. In his classic 1975 study “Strain of Violence,” historian Richard Maxwell Brown observed that American vigilantism is an indigenous and deeply rooted part of our shared history. We have a lot of experience with private citizens meting out their own versions of justice, and it is largely an ugly one.

These new technologies prey upon familiar fears—that local police ignore or dismiss crimes important to neighbors—and hyper-charge them with the power of surveillance. The potential concerns they raise are similar to the ones we see as law enforcement agencies and private corporations adopt these tools, but with even fewer guardrails. Neighborhoods armed with Ring videos, Flock readers, and NextDoor posts have the power to create networked engines of suspicion, sometimes ill-founded or erroneous, that may embolden residents to take actions they should not.

And even if neighborhoods armed with ALPR do nothing more than watch and post, the harms are significant nonetheless. The erosions of our privacy are coming from the government, corporations, and now our neighbors.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.

Watch the video: Vigilant Barrier Brings Bike-Safety Improvement to. Street (August 2022).