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They're crazy out there

My Friday column talks about a central Alberta farmer who is being prosecuted for collaring a thief by relatively safe means in a place where police response times are probably somewhere between 15 minutes and a half-hour. I accuse the RCMP of discouraging civilized deterrence (thieves were hanged in cold blood by our culture in the age of Johnson, Gibbon, and Burke; it can't be all that terrible to knock the odd one down with a high-speed cloud of lead bees), but it must be admitted that the deterrent effect of Brian Knight's actions might not be nearly so great if he hadn't received the publicity from being charged.


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Comments (17)

Lord Bob:

Slagging the RCMP again? I pray I am the first to come in with "next time you need to be arrested and charged for protecting your property and livelihood, CALL A HIPPY."

Eric Grant:

Maybe you should just call an Alberta farmer.

L. Miller:

I hadn't been aware of this issue until I clicked to your column through bourque, although I notice now it is getting airplay on Sask newstalkradio.

Your point about delegating to the police our authority is bang-on. Of course, nearly everyone in our society has no idea who Locke is or what might be the origin of RCMP legitimacy as a police force.

Thanks for making this a substantive discussion.


Have some sympathy for our overlords. They can't have their sheep leaving the flock, after all. If some people end up in jail, or their stuff stolen, or dead in order to keep everyone else in line, it's worth it.


I know it's probably satisfying to shoot the little bugger who made off with your quad, but I don't think doing so is good for property owners overall. Yes, fear of being shot will convince some would-be property thieves to find another line of work. But those thieves who remains will probably start carrying heat themselves; do we really want an arms race between property owners and thieves? I'd rather someone who broke into my house be unarmed than armed in anticipation of the possibility I might start shooting at them.

I guess it's just a question of whether the increased deterrence gained from armed confrontations is worth the increased risk of shootouts when confronted. I tend to put a much higher value on human life than property, so I think it's probably a bad idea overall to resort to violence to stop thieves.

I also think you need to account for the costs of encouraging disrespect for the law. I understand that there may be frustration about police response times and "wrist-slap" punishment. But I don't think you can neatly cordon off "property crime" as an area of life where we can take the law into our own hands, while respecting the law in all other areas of life. Teaching citizens to take the law into their own hands if they catch someone stealing a quad implies it is also acceptable to do so when your daughter tells you she was raped, or when you catch the neighbour kid driving through your alfalfa field.

If you're instead suggesting we change the criminal law to allow for broader rights to defend your property, then obviously this objection disappears. But then you still need to explain why you trust property owners to make on-the-spot judgments about guilt and innocence, and potentially apply lethal force as a result of their judgment. I think there are significant costs involved in doing so.

So -- on a basic moral level, do I think the thieving SOB got what he deserved? Yes. But I think your respect for property rights, which I largely share, might be clouding your assessment of the situation somewhat. Is this really about the "very possibility of a safe, productive rural life"?


The only thing that baffles me is where the hell this "only in Alberta" stuff is coming from. Man, I know more than enough folks down here in Ontario (or back home in NS) who are perfectly prepped and ready to blow anyone away unfortunate enough to stumble in looking for an easy score.


Also, deliberately causing a high-speed motor vehicle accident is not "relatively safe" means. Perhaps this is nit-picking, but come on.

High-speed? Just how fast do you think a quad goes at full throttle?


On a flat paved road? Depends on what you've got, I guess, but I'd say at least 80kph. (More for a monster) I have only ever off-roaded on a four-wheeler so I can't rightly say...

Half Canadian:

Burglary should have several occupational hazards. The law should not discourage this.

Fred S.:

"You are much safer plying your trade elsewhere. Preferably in one of those places where the nice people would think it barbaric to shoot you."

Thieves of Alberta, I have a better suggestion. Instead of leaving for B.C., swing by the Cosh manse (456 Crackwhore Mews, Da Ghetto, Edmonton). Let's face it, the old fellow isn't going to chase you for too long, and he's unlikely to shoot out anything more dangerous than a few ill-chosen words.

Pickings might be slim, though.

It's all just a bit rich: Cosh's painting of Albertans as a race of virtuous yeomen, pacific but implacable when roused. In which pamphlet exactly did Burke (and how dare you utter the great man's name!) propound gunning down fleeing men?

And just for the record, police shooting knife-wielding vagrant as he advances upon them: bad; trailer-trash shooting thief as he runs away empty-handed: good.

Hmmm, I was just at 451 Crackwhore Mews earlier this afternoon, sorry I didn't pop in and say hello.

Fred does happen to bring up a point of at least some interest: comparing the Vancouver Airport tasering to the Knight farm defense wasn't just in the National Post article but also in the comments of the CBC stories on the event. Knight's defenders in particular bring up that by being wounded by farmer's birdshot as opposed to jolted by Taser International's electricity may have done the theif a favour.

Two major differences jump out to mind. Firstly, because of their supra-legal abilities and reams of specialized training, police are held to a higher standard than civilians. Similarly, a wheelchair-bound WW2 vet has a lower standard to justify shooting potential assailants that a 24-year-old mixed martial artist is not (ie. the latter can be expected to single-handedly engage an unarmed attacker in an aisleway at Southgate while the former is helpless), and likewise if I come across a man in the street in need of CPR, and I perform it improperly and fail to save him, I am not liable the same way that an ambulance driver coming across that same man would be. Just ignore the difference in circumstances and realize that four RCMP officers chasing a thief in Tees are not realistically to be held to the same standards as the lone farmer when attempting to apprehend a thief departing with stolen property (even if they were, the Tees thief ain't dead). Police have been given the authority and the mandate to investigate crimes and apprehend suspects, and they must exercise that authority under a higher level of scrutiny and accountability than somebody with few of their legal powers (and few of their BatBelt-style toys).

The second point about this is the reason people are upset about the Knight case is because after-the-fact investigative policing has such a lousy record regarding property crimes. Stolen vehicles are rarely recovered, though bait car programs are at least one innovative way that police forces are actually solving the cases. A coworker had her apartment ransacked a few months ago, and was 90% sure that the problem neighbours in her complex were responsible (previous theft problems had landed them in court, they had been evicted and were in the process of moving out that very week, etc.) None of her stuff was ever found and the next day her car was trashed by unknown persons. Every physically able victim fantasizes about being able to catch the person red handed. Ultimately though what good does even that do if you have no options? Say that a constable with Bashaw RCMP happened to be on the farm in question at the time of the incident (sleeping with the farmer's twentysomething daughter, pulling in to investigate what looked like a group of people in what he knew was an old farming couple's residence, whatever) and it was this RCMP constable, not Knight, who intervened. At precisely which point in the narrative would his chase of this thief have differed from Knight's? Ultimately we're looking at a scenario where the differences between a police officer and a civilian performing the actions are technology based.

This story keeps being interpreted by some people who hear it as "The Punisher meting out his own harsh justice to the criminals he stalks"; its as if had Knight not discovered the theft until morning its feared he would jimmy the locks in sheds around Clive and Alix until he found his property and dropped a grenade in the truck that had driven off.


This being Alberta, I'm disappointed that no one has brought "shoot, shovel, and shut-up" into the conversation yet. Because this looks like a prima facie case for applying this principle.


There seems to be an implicit level of benign intent granted to thieves who are "only" after material possessions. How can one be sure that the thieves intent on stealing object X from the barn wouldn't also like to invade the inner sanctum of the family home? Granted, the lads interested in the ATV may want only that particular item, but how are you supposed to know this? And, sucks to be you or your family if you guess wrong; a lifetime of awful memories is little consolation. As is knowing that criminal Bob and Doug are doing 5-10 for a series of crimes against your wife and daughters and, with early parole and 2 for 1 sentencing, will be out in four years. They know where you live.

The bottom line is that you can't undo a crime that is committed against you or family in your own home. Why on earth would you take the chance? Crime statistics can be trotted out to placate worries, but if you are the 1 in 100,000, the stats mean absolutely nothing.


Excellent point about the abysmal track record of property recovery- I live not too far away from Crackhead Mews in Edmonton- our house has been robbed while we were at work- 6 times in 5 years. The EPS, while genial, does not pretend that there is any chance that the goods will ever be returned. No hope is ever given that the homeowner can expect a return call from the officer, let alone an arrest of the guilty party.

The last time, however, we were at home at 5 am when a young moron took one of our gardening tools and used it to pry open the back door. He was not expecting my husband to round the corner before he was able to take anything. He probably was also not expecting to be chased 3 blocks by a 6'5" hairy man in his underwear before being beaten with the implement in question (although he did escape down an alley stewn with broken glass, alas).

The police, once again, were very nice. Big, perfect handprints were left behind, easily matched to a prior offender... no arrest made, as of a few months ago. The forensics guy did admit that my husband's actions were more effective than anything the police were likely to accomplish. So depressing sometimes.

Yardley Slope:

Everybody's got stories.

Our neighbours ran a known crack den/"flophouse"/fencing operation for two years. It was "known" because the RCMP were the ones who told us what was going on (we were naive: "maybe he's taking the panels out of his car at 3:00 am because he's a shift worker, honey!"). They knew all about it, enough to reassure us with "they're not dangerous gangsters, just small timers." We sure slept better at night knowing that, let me tell you.

2 years it went on, and every time the RCMP was called they had a calm discussion with our neighbours (it was like visiting old friends, I guess)... and left. The only time - the ONLY time - the RCMP got animated was when I went over to the fence line while the RCMP were having what appeared to be a genial conversation with our neighbours after a needle fight on the front lawn to ask how long they (our neighbours) expected us to take it.

At that point I was angrily yelled at by the RCMP to back off or else they'd be forced to take me away. That was the ONLY time I saw any assertive behaviour by our protectors.

I liken the RCMP to the banks: if you forget to look after the stuff you're supposed to do (like banking, or actual policing) no amount of branding and PR expertise is going to help you when the crappy loans you went after don't get paid or you get caught on film electrocuting a distraught and confused tourist at the airport.

George Skinner:

Where the farmer went wrong was in using a gun against the thief. A much better strategy would have been to have a couple of large dogs on his property. Dogs are naturally territorial (you don't need an attack dog) and their senses make them living burglar alarms. Great deterrent value, and a 150 lb Rottweiler is autonomous, unlike a gun. I've got a 75 lb Rottweiler-Collie cross, and she's been helpful a couple of times when I've investigated odd people in our townhouse complex at night. Never mind that the dog wants to hid behind my legs - the people I talk to seem to find her a little more threatening than if I were carrying a baseball bat...


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