Police call off armed vigilantes

21:09, May 28 2009

An armed "vigilante" group has been ordered off the streets of Martinborough after a violent clash with local youths.

The self-appointed community night patrol is understood to comprise many local business owners including one dubbed the sheriff of Martinborough and was formed after a spate of burglaries in the small Wairarapa town.

Sources say the group carry weapons, though its members deny they are acting outside the law.

They patrol the small Wairarapa town from 10pm till dawn in cars, by foot and on bicycles, taking registration numbers and watching for suspect behaviour.

The group was shut down by police and disbanded in consultation with its members following an incident early on Thursday morning in which a shot was fired during a clash between night patrol members and local youths.

One patrol member needed hospital treatment.

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Police are reluctant to comment, but it is understood a warning shot was fired in the air by one of the patrol during the clash.

The group of about 40 men formed last month following a spike in burglaries and property crime around Martinborough.

Acting Senior Sergeant Carolyn Watson, of Masterton, said yesterday that four people had been arrested and more arrests were likely.

A Carterton man, 18, faces assault charges and a Martinborough man, 33, is on firearms charges. Two youths will also appear in Masterton Youth Court.

Mrs Watson said community patrols should act as eyes and ears for police, but she warned against confrontation with suspects "or taking the law into your own hands".

The man dubbed "the sheriff" rejected suggestions his members were vigilantes.

"We are doing the right thing and damn right we are. It is not vigilante behaviour at all. This town had more than 45 burglaries in just over a week and there were old people afraid in their homes and as rural folk, we had had a gutsful."

Since the group formed, three teenage girls and a boy, 12, had been caught as part of police investigations into dishonesty offences, he said.

"Our tactics have worked, haven't they? We have managed to almost shut down whatever operation was happening here. Our old folk can feel safe at night again."

Local cafe and bar owner Mike Topp is part of a police-sanctioned community patrol, with links to the other group. Though "100 per cent behind the boys and what they were trying to achieve", they had gone too far, he said.

"I don't condone the use of illegal weapons or violence. But what they set out to achieve and have achieved is simply brilliant.

"We are a small community and we need to come together and stand up and be counted when there are threats against us. I guess the best way is for us to do it all together legally and under police direction."

Vigilante action in Wairarapa also rose to the fore in 2006 after the "sheriff of Ngawi", Garth Gadsby, fired a shot near burglars fleeing the seaside village.

He was convicted of recklessly discharging a firearm.

The Dominion Post