“There are very strict rules of engagement,” says Jeromy McHenry, who owns a private security firm in California and has made over 1,000 citizen’s arrests. Statutes governing when and how laypeople can arrest their compatriots vary. Know your state’s laws. In California, you must witness the crime in order to make an arrest for a misdemeanor; for a felony, you don’t. McHenry likes to play it safe and always tells his new security-guard trainees, “If you didn’t see it, it didn’t happen.”
Say you witness a man snatching a woman’s purse. You’re inclined to intervene. Assess your safety. Is he bigger than you? Might he have a weapon? It is always better to be a good witness than to botch an arrest, thereby endangering yourself and further complicating an unfolding crime. If you do get involved, act with authority. “Speak in a stern, matter-of-fact voice,” McHenry says. Announce loudly: “You’re under citizen’s arrest.” Decide ahead of time whether you intend to restrain the person: Most states allow for the use of necessary force. For all but one of McHenry’s citizen’s arrests, he was on the job — either in security or looking for shoplifters in department stores — and he handcuffed perpetrators. The one arrest he made in his free time involved holding a belligerent man down on the floor of a truck-stop restaurant until the sheriff arrived. Expect people to run, resist, punch and kick. “I’ve been hit in the head with a bottle of alcohol,” McHenry says.
Call the police as soon as possible. “Explain what you saw, who was involved, how it occurred and the actions that you took,” McHenry says. Your body will be humming with adrenaline, but don’t cuss, yell, use slang or act erratically with law-enforcement officers. You don’t want to raise suspicions about your credibility.
You will most likely have to go to court after making a citizen’s arrest; you may need to testify, undergo cross-examination and appear multiple times before a judge. Inserting yourself into what you perceive to be a crime scene is a risky, complicated act. “You’re going to get sued if you mess up,” McHenry says. “You can be arrested for making a false arrest.”
By Malia Wollan
May 6, 2016