EDITORIAL: The problem with do-it-yourself policing

Anyone who wonders why an Ozaukee County parks department employee got a disorderly conduct ticket for chasing down a speeding car in Waubedonia Park might find the answer in news stories in the national press over the past few years about the bad outcomes of attempts at enforcing vigilante justice.

In one of the most recent episodes in the annals of American vigilantism, a Florida man was found guilty of manslaughter for shooting and killing a motorist who broke a law by parking in a handicapped space without displaying the required permit.

The Waubedonia incident was, of course, minor in comparison—no one was physically hurt. As reported in Ozaukee Press, Dennis Peterson, a caretaker working in the Fredonia park, observed a car carrying two teenage girls “flying through” the park and pursued it on his motorcycle.

“I went after them and pulled them over,” he said.

Three days later, Peterson was issued a citation for disorderly conduct and now faces a $565 fine.

The Press headline read, “Do-good parks caretaker fined for his effort.”

The caretaker told the Press, “That’s a pretty hefty fine for me doing my job.”

Some readers may agree. There has always been a bit of a cachet in taking the law into one’s own hands in pursuit of some form of justice.

Experience makes it clear, however, that vigilantism is its own form of lawlessness and it often comes with unfortunate consequences. The phenomenon known as road rage provides daily examples.

A driver appears to break a law by cutting in front of another in a dangerously close highway encounter. The “victim” turned vigilante pursues the perpetrator at high speed, adding his or her own reckless driving to the situation, further endangering other motorists. A confrontation often ensues, sometimes ending in a violent crime.

Ubiquitous concealed-carry laws raise the stakes in vigilante clashes. These days, anyone can be carrying a gun. More than a few occurrences of road rage have ended in gunfire.

Some armed vigilantes have seemed to be acting out fantasies in which they are pseudo-police empowered to stop suspected lawbreakers with lethal force. In Washington state, several armed shoppers fired shots at a suspected shoplifter heedless of the danger to bystanders. In Michigan, a woman opened fire in a crowded Home Depot parking lot at someone who appeared to be leaving the store with stolen merchandise.

In Florida, a state with a “stand your ground” law so broadly written that it all but invites armed vigilante action, a gated subdivision’s private guard shot and killed a teenager who, he said in defense of his action, looked like he intended to commit a crime.

Back in the (thankfully) more peaceful world of Waubdonia Park, caretaker Peterson said he had stopped speeding cars at other times before the incident that led to his ticket. “Once a guy came out of the car with a bat,” he said.

Peterson is lucky it wasn’t a gun.

If the long record of vigilante justice gone bad is not enough to explain why the caretaker has been cited for a misdemeanor, Fredonia Village Marshal Mike Davel’s explanation makes it perfectly clear:

“He was dressed in regular clothes, driving a motorcycle and basically drove in a reckless manner. These girls had no idea who he was. He blocked their path and prevented them from leaving the park.”

Peterson deserves credit for dedication to his job, which he said is to “take care of my park . . . and protect the people in it.” But he would do the protecting part of that job better by following Davel’s advice when he sees bad driving behavior:

“He should have got the license place number and called the police.”


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Ozaukee Press

Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

125 E. Main St.
Port Washington, WI 53074
(262) 284-3494


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