OPINION

Phoenix volunteer patrol force sends scary message

Posted: Updated:
(Source: KPHO/KTVK) (Source: KPHO/KTVK)
(Source: KPHO/KTVK) (Source: KPHO/KTVK)
Bolt Force is a volunteer citizen patrol group. (Source: KPHO/KTVK) Bolt Force is a volunteer citizen patrol group. (Source: KPHO/KTVK)

By Danny Cevallos CNN Legal Analyst 

Editor's note: Danny Cevallos is a CNN legal analyst and a criminal defense attorney practicing in Pennsylvania and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Follow him on Twitter: @CevallosLaw. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN) -- A group of volunteers dressed all in black, bristling with semiautomatic weapons, are patrolling an Arizona highway that has seen nearly a dozen shootings in recent weeks.

They call themselves Bolt Force and they have been patrolling high-crime neighborhoods for half a decade. But now they are lending their hands -- and their arms -- to the search for suspects in the shootings that have terrorized a highway and a city.

[READ: Armed citizen search for I-10 shooter (By Derek Staahl)]

Bolt Force describes itself as the nation's first and only armed volunteer crime-fighting force that specializes in law enforcement and preservation of order. They claim to be made up mostly of former law enforcement, current and/or former bounty hunters, bodyguards, security and military personnel that are armed and uniformed so they are easily identified by members of the community.

They also make clear that unlike the Guardian Angels, they are not dressed in red windbreakers and matching berets. Bolt Force wears black body armor and carries weapons -- as if anyone was likely to mix those groups up.

I can almost hear my Uncle Gary in Arizona cheering. If his old football knee wasn't bugging him, I'd expect him to be gearing up with Bolt Force, festooned with his favorite crossbow and muzzleloader ... he would even roll out his Civil War cannon just to show off. Uncle Gary is not some outlier survivalist type, either. He's a retired surgeon, and a respected member of his community.

Law enforcement is not cheering, however. Officials said they're in contact with the group to be aware of their locations. And, officially, while law enforcement appreciates the extra help, the department would prefer to handle the investigation itself, thank you very much.

For Bolt Force, that's not all that negative a response from the government. It's not quite tacit approval, but it beats being ordered off the streets or outright arrested.

Law enforcement could easily take the view that, irrespective of organization or noble purpose, heavily armed civilians roaming the streets in high-crime areas create reasonable suspicion of criminal activity worthy of investigative detention, and arrest members on sight. The more practical reason why authorities can't approve is simple: What if everyone started up their own Bolt Force? It's either a scary thought or an uplifting one, depending on your perspective: What happens to a civilized society when outlaw justice becomes normalized?

"Criminals are a superstitious, cowardly lot. So my disguise must be able to strike terror into their hearts. I must be a creature of the night, black, terrible."

That's not the Bolt Force creed, but it certainly sounds like it could be. Instead, it's from a 1939 issue of Detective Comics No. 33, in which Batman, perhaps the most famous vigilante of all time, contemplates his life mission.

As a society, we're downright schizophrenic when it comes to caped crusaders: The vigilante of film or literature is celebrated, while the real-life vigilante is to be distrusted and arrested.

It's true: We cheer Batman and Iron Man, but condemn "Zimmerman," a hyper-motivated, self-appointed neighborhood watchman who employs lethal force. When a subway rider believes he's being robbed and blasts away at some kids, he is prosecuted. The reason is obvious: When a fictional hero dispenses lethal force, we don't question his judgment. When a regular citizen does, often there's plenty to question.

Even though George Zimmerman and infamous subway shooter Bernie Goetz may have believed they were in danger and doing the right thing, society and law enforcement disagreed that their use of lethal force was justified, and they were prosecuted. Once in court, however, Zimmerman was acquitted, Goetz was acquitted on charges of attempted murder and assault.

On the whole, we're all over the place when it comes to branding someone's use of force as criminal or justified. It seems in these cases, a critical consideration is whether the defendant was confronted with a threat of deadly force. That's an easier case for a defendant when he is accosted, but what about when armed citizens go out on patrol?

Vigilantism is officially discouraged in the law. Citizen justice, after all, is highly personal, and a putative act of self-defense or retribution is defined not by the reasonable person, but by the eye of the beholder ... of deadly weapons.

Militia groups, some anti-abortion activists, even the self-righteous Twitter troll ranting from his mom's basement -- all could fashion themselves as dispensing vigilante justice on some level. Society does not always agree.

Criminal defense attorneys will tell you that rarely does even the most depraved criminal view himself as an evil guy or the man in the black hat. Rather, criminals often view themselves as a Robin Hood, or Billy the Kid -- outlaws, yes, but noble outlaws.

Even the Supreme Court has observed -- without approving -- the concept of "judicial self-help" and from whence it originates:

"The instinct for retribution is part of the nature of man, and channeling that instinct in the administration of criminal justice serves an important purpose in promoting the stability of a society governed by law. When people begin to believe that organized society is unwilling or unable to impose upon criminal offenders the punishment they 'deserve,' then there are sown the seeds of anarchy -- of self help, vigilante justice, and lynch law."

The Supreme Court is right -- even the most noble-intentioned vigilante justice, on the whole, ultimately threatens an ordered society. Bolt Force's apparent benefit to society in the short term sends a frightening message in the long term. Indeed, its success -- its very existence -- could be taken to mean that society and the state have failed on some level. Sure, it's terrific to have some extra watchmen, but ultimately: "Who watches the Watchmen?" And what does it mean about the society that needed a Bolt Force to begin with?

For now, it's OK to feel good about Bolt Force. Bolt Force, so far, is organized, employs self-restraint, and works with law enforcement. One message to them, though: When it comes to my Uncle Gary, just have him man the Bolt Force phones. Don't let him get started with that Civil War cannon.

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