Citizen’s arrests are rare, but potentially effective

About a dozen arrests by citizens occur each year, but authorities want to see more.

Kevin Behr

While patrolling the Washington Avenue Bridge, Dan Farrar encountered two people smoking marijuana.

Farrar, assistant program manager of the University’s Security Monitor Program, said he radioed University police to respond, but the smokers overheard the conversation and ditched the pot.

Once police arrived, it would have been easy for the perpetrators to deny possessing the drug because police didn’t actually witness the crime. But when Farrar signed the citizen’s arrest form, they basically lost their case, Farrar said.

About a dozen of these arrests happen every year on campus, said Steve Johnson, deputy chief of University police.

Security monitors perform many of those citizen’s arrests, Farrar said.

“They’re the first point of contact,” he said. “They’re the eyes and ears for the police.”

Arrests for more serious crimes, gross misdemeanors and felonies don’t require officers to be present during the act. But officers can only arrest people for misdemeanor and petty misdemeanor crimes if they witness the crime firsthand.

That’s where the citizen’s arrest program comes in. Without a witness, these crimes would go unpunished.

A citizen who witnesses a crime and wishes to make a citizen’s arrest should immediately call the police while fully taking in the situation, Minneapolis Police officer Mike Killebrew said.

Oftentimes, he said, people will call 911, give a description of the situation and leave. If that happens, the police can’t do anything to the suspect because they didn’t witness the crime.

“If people take the time to call police, take the time to stick around,” Killebrew said, “you have a stake in your neighborhood Ö to help the community.”

In the end, the arresting citizen must be present to sign a form and officially hand the suspect over to police.

Citizens can keep a suspect on scene by simply telling the suspect that he or she is under arrest and cannot leave, Killebrew said. If that person tries to leave, the citizen has the right to detain the suspect, but it all depends on the context of the situation, he said.

“Am I going to ask a 60-year-old lady to tackle a guy trying to escape?” Killebrew said. “No. It’s just common sense.”

At the same time, the citizen’s arrest program shouldn’t be abused.

“This isn’t a license to be a vigilante,” Johnson said. “When in doubt, call the police.”

During a dangerous situation, call the police; it’s not worth getting injured over a low-level crime, Johnson said.

Citizens also have the right to defend themselves and use an appropriate amount of force to stop a suspect if he or she resists arrest, Killebrew said.

“If he tries to fight you, you’re allowed to fight back,” he said. “Then the charge is assault.”

If people are willing to stand up to the potential danger and try to stop crime as it happens, the community will become a better, safer place, Killebrew said.

“It’s one of the tools that are grossly overlooked by citizens,” he said. “If more people knew about this, we’d do a lot more citizen’s arrests.”

Johnson called the program another good avenue to bring people to justice and hold them accountable for their actions.

It’s not trivial if a person catches someone urinating in public because it can lead to other things, Killebrew said. Nabbing someone for a petty crime might reveal a lengthy criminal, for example.

Ultimately, performing a citizen’s arrest is an option, not an obligation, Farrar said. The security monitors are not required to perform them.

“But being in uniform and being an employee of the police department, there is a certain expectation for it,” he said.