Photo Credit: Facebook | Port Alberni Vandal Pictures

Are Internet Sleuth Groups the new 911?

What's causing this vigilante wave?

Islanders are taking crime investigations into their own hands.

The big shooting in Nanaimo last month could have been in a movie.

Ernie’s Blackpoint Repair shop owner, Clint Smith, had some tools stolen.

Rather than going to the cops, he and some buddies decided to head to a homeless encampment where they suspected the thief had stored the stash.

It did not end well.

While trying to retrieve the stolen goods, Smith took multiple shots to the abdomen and was later put in critical care.

He’s now stable but will be recovering for a long time.

While taking crime fighting into your own hands fits well in a film script, in real life, it comes with real dangers.

So what is motivating islanders to do their own detective work?

Smith and his buddies are far from the only group that’s been engaging in vigilante-style tactics in efforts to lower crime on the Island.

The Stolen Bicycle Avengers are a lower mainland group dedicated to returning stolen bicycles to their rightful owners.

Port Alberni Vandal Pictures has the sole purpose of reporting suspicious behaviour and helping victims of theft and other crime identify who’s at fault.

There are similar “community detective” groups for many Islands towns.

While these groups don’t always exclude police from the community’s “investigations,” – they don’t always involve them either.

Cases like these can spark heated debates about private action and the boundaries and shortcomings of law enforcement.

At the moment, public support for this kind of action is high.

Internet sleuth groups often have thousands of members who try to solve crime cases like a morning sudoku puzzle.

“I like the finding of things. It’s very satisfying. It’s doing something good. It’s like volunteering but in kind of a passive way,” Bike Avengers member Sarah Wakefield told Times Colonist.

There have been protests in Nanaimo in support of the “situation” that led these men to raid the camp in the first place.

“Current provincial and federal policies are leaving the RCMP and justice system woefully under-resourced, and in our view, unable to serve and protect the public,” Collen Middleton, interim chair of Nanaimo Area Public Safety Association and the protest’s organizer said in a press release.

They’re calling for law enforcement to “do their jobs” and keep dangerous offenders in prison, not allow them back onto the streets.

If there’s one thing police forces were made for, it’s to serve and protect.

While trust in the cops doesn’t run deep for everyone, people feeling they can do a better job indicates a severe problem.

But the alternatives certainly aren’t a whole lot better.

Desiree Surowski, the co-founder of the Penticton and Area Overdose Prevention Society, told CBC that vigilante tactics, especially used towards homeless populations, are a slippery slope that won’t end well.

“Someone will lose their life eventually,” she said. “It might not be the unhoused person, and it might not be the person taking the law into their own hands — it could be an innocent bystander…Nobody wants that on their conscience.”

But as long as people continue to feel intense frustration towards both crime in their areas and the justice systems that are supposed to keep issues in check, things will likely continue to escalate.

Nanaimo Mayor Leonard Krog told CBC that these problems often seem to loop back to investing in addiction treatment and other social services.

“I don’t want to sound like a broken record, but I’ve been talking about the whole issue of mental health, addictions, trauma, brain injury, homelessness, and the crime that goes with feeding an addiction for a very long time,” he said.

If real solutions aren’t pursued, these problems won’t be going anywhere.

Desperate people take desperate measures, which applies no matter what end of the stick you’re on.