Arizona police got a surprise on Wednesday when an armed civilian dressed in black turned out not to be the serial shooter they had been looking for over the past few weeks, but a vigilante militia member trying to lend a hand. Phoenix authorities confirmed that a militia group, which called itself Bolt Force, had been patrolling the area where police say a lone gunman or group of armed suspects had been opening fire on passing cars at random in recent weeks. The group is just the latest in a recent uprising of citizen militias to begin taking law enforcement into their own hands, and, unsurprisingly, police aren’t too happy about it.
Locals first alerted police on Wednesday after a suspicious looking man carrying a firearm began wandering near the freeway. After authorities from the Phoenix Department of Public Safety (DPS) arrived on the scene and detained him, the man told them he was the leader of the vigilante Bolt Force group and was attempting to scope out the area for bullet casings or any other clues that might lead him to the shooter.
“The communication error caused resources to be drawn to me instead of the shooter which is bad,” the man, 48-year old moving company owner Tony Rowley (who prefers to simply be referred to as “Bolt”), complained to local Fox affiliate KSAZ. “It wasn't a result of me, it was a result of a breakdown of communication.”
You could hardly blame police though: Dressed in all black, body armor, and carrying knives, firearms, and mace, the Bolt Force members might easily have been mistaken for the serial gunmen that police had been tracking.
“We would prefer they let us handle this investigation,” said the DPS in a statement this week.
Bolt Force militia members range in age and ethnicity, although the majority are former police, military and security personnel, according to a report by The Arizona Republic on Friday. The group claimed that, while their presence might have seemed menacing, they were simply there to provide assistance — not to detain or hurt anyone themselves.
“Our goal is to help … [to get] extra eyes and ears on the ground,” said Bolt, in a comment to the paper. “The goal to let police handle the situation — we prefer law enforcement handles (arrests).”
Bolt Force isn't the only group in recent days to take serious community matters under its own wing; After President Obama signed an executive order last fall, deferring the deportation of some 5 million illegal immigrants, civilian militia groups, the Patriots and the Desert Hawks, set up camp along the U.S. border with Mexico, hoping to deter the wave of immigrants that had been peppering the southern states for months. Members, many of whom were former military men, were armed with assault rifles and decked out in body armor, and claimed that they were there to protect citizens.
Hidalgo, Texas Sheriff Eddie Guerra told Reuters that same month that he feared the sudden presence of an armed militia might prompt even further violence between the two opposing sides (immigrant and vigilante). Worse still, he said, it could lead law enforcement to potentially misidentify the group’s members and open fire themselves.
“When there are situations with any individual who is bearing arms in public or on private property,” said Guerra, “there is always a concern amongst law enforcement of possible misidentification that can lead to friendly-fire tragedies.”
In Ferguson, Missouri as well, where protesters gathered again this past August to commemorate the police-shooting death of local black teen Michael Brown, a group of vigilante crimefighters known as the Oath Keepers kept watch over the crowd, toting rifles and wearing body armor and other weapons.
“Their presence was both unnecessary and inflammatory,” St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar told reporters, complaining that the group, which had previously been deemed a “fiercely anti-government, militaristic group” by the Southern Poverty Law Center, was throwing even more tension into the mix. Still, the group claimed they were there to simply protect reporters from the conservative news site InfoWars.
“There were problems here, there were people who got hurt,” said one group leader, who identified himself only as “John.” “We needed to be prepared for that.”
In Phoenix, the nervous tension from both the serial shootings and Bolt Force’s presence has given rise to a bevy of reactions from authorities and worried civilians. But despite negative backlash on the group's public Facebook page this week, Bolt himself reassured Arizona Republic reporters that he was too busy fighting crime to worry about what people thought.
“I'm up all night fighting crime [in addition to my day jobs],” he said. “I got way too much on my plate.”