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Thwarted theft sparks queries of vigilantism

Killing of Trayvon resonates in D.C.

- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 27, 2012

He didn't want to be a hero. He didn't want two thieves to make off with his Chrysler Town and Country van either.

So when a Northeast D.C. man over the weekend saw two people trying to pop the door lock of his van with a screwdriver, he sprang into action. The man videotaped the would-be thieves, rallied his neighbors to help confront them and detained a young man he caught inside his van until police arrived and arrested the youth.

Though the incident was resolved quickly with an arrest and no serious injuries, in the wake of the Trayvon Martin killing it has prompted a discussion about vigilantism among residents in the District.

The Friday night incident started with a 40-year-old man gazing out the window of his apartment near the Fort Totten Metro Station. He saw two young men peering into his van, which was parked behind the apartment complex, and began filming the suspicious activity with his cellphone.

When the men began using a screwdriver on the door of the vehicle, the van owner asked his wife to call police, he had another relative continue taping, and he ran out to confront the men.

"I bolted out the door. Honestly, I started praying, 'Let my neighbors be downstairs. I don't want to get into a confrontation,' " said the man, whose name The Washington Times agreed to withhold because he was a victim of a crime. "But this has to stop. Living by the Metro station, we've had it all - robberies and thefts."

On his way out, the man saw several of his neighbors and asked whether they could back him up as he approached the van.

They followed and stood guard around the van as the owner confronted a young man, who by this time was taking a screwdriver to the ignition.

The van owner said he asked the young man to hand over the screwdriver, and another neighbor - a retired police officer - brought out a pair of handcuffs to help detain the young man until police arrived.

The young man, who was not named because he is a juvenile, was charged with simple assault and unlawful entry, according to a police report.

Accounts of the incident by the van owner match that of a 4th District police lieutenant and a police report.

"I don't believe in the whole vigilante thing, but I do believe people are responsible for themselves and each other," the van owner said in an interview, explaining his actions. "In our case, no one was trying to be a hero or get all this recognition, but a message has to be sent that you can't just do wrong and allow nothing to happen."

Residents were alerted to the incident on the Metropolitan Police Department's 4th District online listserv with a message from a police lieutenant who described the incident and thanked neighbors who "stood up and took action."

"Our thanks go out to the neighbors who stood up to make a difference in their neighborhood as they showed they will not tolerate this behavior in their neighborhoods anymore," wrote Lt. John Haines.

Other residents quickly chimed in, both congratulating the neighbors for a job well done and questioning whether those involved had put their lives at unnecessary risk to protect an inanimate object.

The Trayvon Martin case seemed to loom large over the discussion.

The Florida teen was fatally shot last month by neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman in a case that has ignited issues of race surrounding the shooting and its handling by the police department.

But the case has also touched off controversy over the role citizens play in policing their neighborhoods.

"I think it's wonderful that people stood up in one respect. It sends the message out that the neighborhood is not going to take this," Jay Phillips, a resident who lives in the 4th District, said in an interview after commenting online. "But the guy in the pursuit of Trayvon was, in his mind, doing nothing wrong as the neighbors in this case were thinking as well."

Brightwood-area resident Charlotte Williams, who read the online account of the incident in Northeast, pointed to Trayvon Martin's fatal shooting as "a glaring example" why residents should opt to call police rather than confront a suspect themselves.

"There was no one in immediate danger for the owner of that vehicle to go out there," she said. "If a life is not in immediate danger, you cannot put your hands on someone. If that guy had become injured in any kind of way, he could have sued them."

The online debate prompted a senior Metropolitan Police Department official to weigh in and restate the department's official position.

"Our message has always been consistent, constant and clear, that if you see a crime in progress or someone that is acting suspiciously, call 911. Dispatchers will alert police and help will be on the way," Assistant Police Chief Alfred Durham said in a statement posted to the listserv, adding that the department does not condone or advise people to confront or challenge anyone engaged in criminal behavior.

Even the van owner who took action said he invoked the story of the Florida teen when speaking with the young man he caught in his vehicle before the police carted him away.

"I told the young man, that young man was in the wrong place at the wrong time with people having the wrong perception of him," the van owner said.

"And there you are in the wrong place at the wrong time with people who have the right perception of you."

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