Thursday, March 14, 2013

Bar your windows, bolt your doors - crime

While taking a weekend in Detroit, I spent the night recently at a friend's home in Hamtramck. It was a beautiful house - one that his parents owned so he didn't have to pay rent (can you imagine?), one that he had painted and decorated nicely, one that had an extra futon with clean sheets for me to sleep on. Everything was perfect, my friend was super hospitable, and the cats purred peacefully as I prepared to sleep. But I couldn't help being a little on edge, and that's because of the cumbersome security door and window grates that had greeted us upon entry.

I tried not to think about it too much. After all, I was only staying one night, and what was the chance that this particular night would be the one when a break-in occurs? It didn't seem like there was too much precedent, either: he'd been broken into two years ago while he was gone during the day, and he had a hunch that it was just his neighbors taking advantage of the opportunity. But I still woke up a couple times during the middle of the night, straining my ears for anything out of place.

I remember growing up, learning to identify "good" and "bad" areas by the presence of security doors. As my own home neighborhood has changed over the past twenty years, that is one of many signals that alert community members have watched for. Others, which are less directly linked to crime but still have that connotation to many people, are loud music and conversation, and typical blight such as vacant houses and overgrown lots.

Now, I'm not about to go all Broken Windows on you and speculate whether these signals contribute to actual crime. I'm more interested in the perception of crime, and the tipping point in neighborhoods.

For instance, when do you decide to get a security door? If you personally have never experienced crime, but the doors keep springing up around you, when do you give in? As one of my friends mentioned, surely you don't want to be the only house on the block without a security door (Hmm, out on my nightly criminal rounds, I'm looking at this row of houses and trying to decide which one to rob. Hey, how about that one without giant metal bars all over its entrance?)

But certainly at the same time you know that you're contributing a little to the sense that your neighborhood is unsafe, is somewhat out of your control. It's an admission to the outside world and also, maybe, to yourself. That can hardly be comfortable. I'm sure there are people who would much sooner move than make that admission.

So maybe you don't feel safe in Hamtramck. But wait a minute, I've got the friend who lives in a part of Washtenaw County that used to be rural and is now suburban, and her family installed a security system after hearing rumors of break & enters at their neighbors' houses. Its automated, reassuring female voice greets me whenever I visit, and it recently went through a bezerk period in which it went off every other day and the police kept rushing to the house to find nothing.

I'm as afraid as anybody to wake up to strange people with guns in my house. And I agree with this paper that there's no correct way to assess risk, that objective stats do not translate in one's head to security or lack thereof, and that this doesn't make a resident irrational or wrong. As someone with an anxiety disorder, I've always judged risk in ways that seem odd or inappropriate to others around me. (But which seem entirely normal to me. Does anyone really think it's a good idea to hurtle through the sky in a winged metal tube?)

But it seems like our ways of assessing risk sometimes do us more harm than good. How can communities work through the fears and rumors and stats and distrust and arrive at something better? How can we prevent or at least acknowledge the racially-charged biases that play into these fears?

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