Over the past decade, the Internet has helped agentless authors become international bestsellers and turned YouTube musicians into chart-topping stars. Crime-fighting is yet another area where the line between professional and amateur is disintegrating. It’s no wonder there’s tension between the two groups.
Vigilantism, however, never exists in a vacuum. It signals a larger dissatisfaction with police. In Canada, this skepticism dates as far back as 1836, when Quebec City residents joined together to combat a rash of banditry that had overwhelmed the authorities. In the 1890s, Yukon miners set up posses to punish thieves and outlaws, compensating for a lack of competent policing in the region.
But law enforcement has also encouraged public participation by turning to citizen watchdogs. Three decades ago, with rising crime rates and budget cuts making police work increasingly difficult, Canadian precincts started to outsource their work to the public. In 1980, the RCMP battled vandalism, grain theft and cattle rustling in rural Alberta by organizing range-patrol operations in pickup trucks outfitted with CB radios. By year’s end, they’d enlisted over 1,000 volunteers, resulting in what residents described as a noticeable decline in crime. A year later, Ottawa municipal authorities founded Canada’s first Neighbourhood Watch program, in which citizens were asked to conduct surveillance from their homes, leading to a 70 per cent drop in break-ins. Alberta’s range-patrol program still exists today, and variations of the Neighbourhood Watch model are used in every major Canadian municipality.
Tech-savvy police departments have started to build on this legacy. Last July, the Toronto Police Service released Canada’s first Crime Stoppers app, a free smartphone application through which users can access updated information about wanted criminals, notifications concerning crimes committed in their neighbourhoods and GPS directions to the nearest police stations. Most importantly, the app enables citizens to submit photographic or video evidence of suspicious activity: robberies, assaults, hit-and-run accidents. Before being forwarded to the authorities, all submissions are “washed” by Crime Stoppers personnel so the cops can’t ascertain the senders’ phone numbers or IP addresses. While anonymous evidence is inadmissible in court, it can aid detectives by corroborating pre-existing hunches or pointing out new avenues for investigation.
Det. Darlene Ross of Crime Stoppers Toronto insists that the program doesn’t aim to enlist permanent volunteers. “We’re not asking people to become agents for the police,” she says. Still, she hopes that whenever one of the app’s 30,000 Toronto users happens to collect pertinent material, he or she will forward it on.