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Citizen patrol Facebook group elicits WPD response

by Rob Burgess - rburgess@wabashplaindealer.com

The recent creation of an open Facebook group caused Wabash City Police officers to ask the public to call the police instead of detaining or questioning subjects.

The “Wabash Indiana Theft and Crime Page” was created Wednesday, Sept. 25 and now has over 2,800 members as of Wednesday.

In a Tuesday press release, Cpt. Matt A. Benson, WPD public information officer, stated that it had come to their attention that citizens had been recruited “to join a group that will patrol areas of the city during the nighttime hours.”

“While the WPD commends those who are committed to a safe community, citizens who volunteer have been asked to ‘record, report and question,’” stated Benson. “Volunteers have also been told that they will be given a unique badge that will be easily identified by law enforcement.”

Benson stated that any such stop would be a violation.

“America was built on the ideal of personal freedom,” he stated. “People, depending on their age, have the right to be out in public at any time. By no means does the WPD condone volunteer citizens to approach, stop and question people no matter what time of day. There are inherent risks in doing this and the detention of any individual should be left to law enforcement.”

Benson stated that if a citizen observes suspicious behavior, they should immediately contact the police by calling 260-563-1111, or 911 if it is an emergency.

“There are many instances that crimes have been reported on social media, but never reported to the WPD,” he stated. “The WPD will then investigate the matter. Some encounters with suspicious individuals can turn violent in an instant. Law enforcement officers are trained and equipped to deal with these situations.”

Benson stated the proposed identifying markers could create more problems than they solve.

“Wearing a unique badge may allow law enforcement to know who these volunteers are, but could be confusing to individuals they may encounter, putting the volunteers’ safety at risk. That is the last thing a member of the WPD wants to happen,” he stated. “Members of this department have taken an oath to protect and serve this community, and we take that oath seriously. Our officers work diligently to keep Wabash a safe place to live. The WPD asks that if you see something suspicious call for the police and allow us to investigate. We want everyone to be safe.”

In response to a Plain Dealer request, Heather France, who created the group, issued a statement Tuesday.

“The watch group was developed to fully cooperate with law enforcement legally and encourage more tips and leads being reported,” she stated. “At no time are any watch volunteers encouraged to engage, threaten, detain or take the law into their own hands. We do not condone that type of unlawful behavior. Our community outreach watch program includes sharing positive resources for those in need as well as a place to share potential tips. We are modeling other towns (that) already have existing neighborhood watch programs in place. Our primary mission is to help create a safer community so our residents feel safe.”