The Complicated Process of a Citizen’s Arrest (Part VII)

APU
6 min readJun 22, 2021
citizen’s arrest part 7 Deel Russo

By Dr. Gary L. Deel, Faculty Director, Wallace E. Boston School of Business, American Public University, and Dr. Chuck Russo, Program Director, Criminal Justice

This is the seventh and final article in this series on the particulars of citizen’s arrests, including when, why and how these arrests are appropriately applied. Start with the first article in this series. This article series is not intended as legal advice. Readers should consult a licensed attorney with any specific questions or concerns on the subject matter.

In the previous article, we addressed what happens in a citizen’s arrest after law enforcement arrives and how best to prepare your business for the possibility of having to effect a citizen’s arrest someday. In this final part, we’ll cover some ancillary points on the subject, including what local governments can do to support citizen’s arrest efforts and what alternatives are viable.

Law Enforcement Should Be Properly Trained to Help Civilians Understand Citizen’s Arrest Procedures

The first thing law enforcement agencies and police departments can do to promote safe and appropriate citizen’s arrest practices in their jurisdictions is to ensure responding personnel are equipped with the knowledge and training to help private citizens who have detained suspected criminals. Chances are these private citizens will look to law enforcement for help and guidance when they arrive, so the officers need to be prepared.

Training classes, hosted by law enforcement and open to the public, in relevant subjects such as self-defense tactics, safe submission techniques, and proper detention procedures can all be really helpful to prepare citizens in advance.

In some very busy municipalities, it’s possible that private citizens may need to play an even more involved role in the process, so support programs for these responsibilities are crucial. Las Vegas hosts a unique initiative called the Summons in Lieu of Arrest (SILA) program for processing citizen’s arrests. Essentially, activity can be so heavy on busy nights that the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department (LVMPD) actually quasi-deputizes certain trained and credentialed personnel at all major hotels or resorts for processing detained persons.

If a citizen’s arrest is made for a minor offense, the property’s SILA officer calls it in to the police, who then check to see if the arrested person has any outstanding warrants. Assuming not, the police dispatch officer can actually file applicable charges over the phone and electronically send court papers to the SILA officer for servicing on the arrested person — along with a summons to appear in court on a specified date.

The SILA officer then prints the documents, issues hard copies to the detained individual and, provided it is safe to do so, the arresting individual can release the offender on his own recognizance. All of this activity happens without a need for law enforcement to ever appear in person.

Obviously, these processings are applicable only in circumstances involving minor offenses without extenuating circumstances. But they do certainly help when law enforcement is strained to address more urgent needs across a busy city like Las Vegas.

How Businesses Can Prepare Employees to Effect a Citizen’s Arrest

One wise point for business preparation is to think about where you would hold someone if you have to detain them. Have a room designated for detaining someone just in case, so that your staff knows what to do and where to go. Again, it should be a room equipped with audio and video surveillance, so that your fair and humane treatment of the detained person is documented at all times.

Another important point for businesses is careful training with staff and what constitutes an arrest and/or a detention, so that painful and expensive mistakes are not made. For example, some security officers might mistakenly think that if they simply instruct someone not to move, they have not effected an arrest. But if the person to whom they’re issuing orders feels that he is not free to leave, then probably it is a citizen’s arrest.

It doesn’t matter whether you do or do not actually have legal authority to order him to stay put. If he reasonably believes you do have the legal authority and would physically stop him if he tried to leave, then you have effectively arrested him, whether or not you ever even touch him.

For example, suppose a security guard walks up to you in a Walmart. The guard is wearing a paramilitary-style uniform with a badge, so although he is not actually a police officer, he sure looks like one. He commands you not to move and tells you he is calling the police.

Now, he doesn’t touch you or tell you to go anywhere with him. He just stands next to you. Physically, you are technically free to walk away, but you get the feeling that if you did try to leave, the guard would stop you, physically if necessary.

In this kind of scenario, an arrest of sorts has very likely taken place. And if it turns out to be without legal justification, then the guard’s stopping you constitutes false arrest or false imprisonment, which can be a felony depending on the circumstances.

So don’t underestimate the power of your mere words and presence, and the effects they can have. Staff should be trained to know what to do and when in order to avoid these pitfalls.

Lastly, it’s important to recognize that there are often alternatives to citizens’ arrests, which may be more appropriate depending on the situation. The first would be to simply not confront the individual, if the circumstances allow it. Suppose that you identify someone shoplifting in your store. You call the police and are told they will be there in five minutes.

Meanwhile, the suspected shoplifter continues to browse and shows no signs of leaving. Do you need to confront and arrest her? Absolutely not, as long as she is not a threat to anyone. Simply keep an eye on her and wait for law enforcement to arrive. Then, when they get there, point out the suspect and let the police handle it. This strategy removes you entirely from the physical and confrontational components.

Another approach would be to ask respectfully for cooperation. Rather than telling the suspected shoplifter that you are arresting her or telling her she is not free to leave, approach her with a friendly demeanor and ask if she would be willing to assist you with a concern. You can explain that there was a report or an allegation concerning her conduct and advise her that you need her assistance. If you can get her to stay long enough for the police to arrive without the situation turning confrontational, then once again, no citizen’s arrest is required.

Because non-confrontational approaches are so preferable to getting physical and detaining someone, robust security training should always include material on how to approach people in difficult situations, how to de-escalate interactions and how to steer a conversation tactfully toward earning peaceful compliance. One such program is called Verbal Judo, and it can be extremely powerful in finding non-violent resolutions to otherwise confrontational encounters through words.

To be fair, not all situations allow for these tactics. Some scenarios, such as those where violence is imminent or already happening, call for immediate, deliberate, assertive action. But this is where training and good judgment come into play. Knowing when not to arrest a person is just as important in knowing how to arrest them properly.

About the Authors

Dr. Gary Deel is a Faculty Director with the Wallace E. Boston School of Business at American Public University. He holds a J.D. in Law and a Ph.D. in Hospitality/Business Management. Gary teaches human resources and employment law classes for American Public University, the University of Central Florida, Colorado State University and others.

Dr. Chuck Russo is the Program Director of Criminal Justice at American Public University. He began his career in law enforcement in 1987 in Central Florida and was involved all areas of patrol, training, special operations and investigations before retiring from law enforcement in 2013. Dr. Russo continues to design and instruct courses, as well as act as a consultant for education, government and industry throughout the world. His recent research and presentations focus on emerging technology and law enforcement applications, post-traumatic stress, nongovernment intelligence actors, and online learning.

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