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My next-door neighbors have recently been the victims of a mini-crime spree. It started a couple of years ago when someone pushed in a French door from their back porch. The next time it was a rear window. The thief stole some video games.
A few months ago I was at home when I heard a heavy thump outside. I looked out the back window but didn't see anything. Ditto for when I stepped out on my front porch. About a half-hour later, the woman next door came by to ask if I had seen anything. She had just come home and found a rear window broken in. Nothing was missing. After that they had a security door and window bars installed.
The last break-in took place New Year's Day. Everybody was home when a neighborhood kid rang the doorbell. The father looked out the window but didn't answer the door. The family suspected that the kid at the door was the interloper who had robbed them before, and they weren't letting him visit their teenage son anymore. Apparently the kid was checking to see whether anyone was home because about an hour later he returned with a friend and broke into the back of the house. The mother confronted him and told him to leave as she called 911.
The kid was caught and admitted to the break-ins. The neighbors are pressing charges. It's kind a relief to know that it was the same kid breaking in rather than a series of random theft attempts. However there was a more troubling note. In the second break-in, the kid's sidekick was carrying a gun — although he just ran off when the first kid was confronted.
You would expect the stealing to stop, but just last week their 1996 Chevy van was stolen from in front of their house. I know the woman next door is at her wit's end and would just as soon move out of Detroit. Her husband is a bit more sanguine. "We've just got to try harder and be more careful," he says. "They're stealing cars in the suburbs so there's no guarantee things will be better if we were to move. Things are getting tight now and the thieves are getting serious."
That may be the case if you're talking about cars — it's true that parking in the driveway is safer than parking in the street, and parking in the garage is safer than the driveway — but I'm hearing about all kinds of crimes in the neighborhood. A few blocks away, a woman left her door open while going back and forth unloading packages from her car. A man came into her home, beat her up and robbed her. Just around the corner, a house was robbed on a recent evening when the couple was out. In addition to the usual things, such as the television and jewelry, the thieves took meat from the freezer. I guess things are getting tight when they're stealing food.
I have my own bit of chagrin from the neighbor's stolen vehicle. I was driving in the volunteer neighborhood radio patrol when it happened — never saw a thing. There's no doubt that neighborhood watch programs cut back on crime, but obviously they're no cure-all. While patrolling that night, my partner told me the empty home next to her own had been stripped of its copper pipes recently.
Pretty much everyone I know in Detroit can tell a tale of crime in their neighborhood. People who find their cars on blocks without wheels in the morning, houses stripped of their gutters, assaults of various kinds.
There's a Detroit Police Department website (detroit.mi.crimeviewcommunity.com) where you can enter an address and get a map of the crimes that have taken place nearby. You need to specify things like within a quarter mile or half-mile of the address, and a time period up to the past 30 days. You can even select the type of crime you seek. Murder is not on the list.
I entered my Greenacres neighborhood address for a report of all crimes within a half-mile radius within the past 30 days. The police map showed nine larcenies, four burglaries, two robberies, two assaults, two car thefts and an arson. For the record, a larceny is when something is taken without force, a burglary is when someone enters a home to steal, and a robbery involves the use of force.
I don't know how those numbers compare to the rest of the city, but a search of a friend's address in the downtown area near Lafayette Park turned up 34 crimes of various categories compared to the 20 in my neighborhood.
My friend has been a crime victim a few times in the past year. Last year, an armed man tried to rob him outside his home while he was unloading household items from a rented van. My friend hit the robber with the heavy box he was carrying. He says he remembers thinking, "You aren't getting into the house. Maybe you are going to shoot me in front of my house, but you aren't going to take me inside at gunpoint."
When the robber asked for money, he yelled, "I don't have any money." He vividly remembers how it ended: "Then, keeping the gun trained on me, he backed away, walking into the darkness of the park. 'Don't look at my face,' he yelled."
My friend plays the scene back in his memory from time to time. And he imagines wrestling the guy to the ground and using the box to bash his brains in. "Sometimes, I confess, I see myself doing that," he says.
The crime goes on. Since then he has found his car shot with paintballs and, most recently, his house was robbed while he was out. The thieves even took a bucket of coins he'd been saving.
Is crime up? Is crime down? I don't know. The statistics don't mean a thing when it happens to you. We're all hunkered down casting suspicious eyes at strangers in the dark. We hear the crime-fighting tips to pay attention to what's around us, don't gas up at night, keep our porch lights on at night, and on and on. Any time my wife is out at night, I want her to let me know when she's coming home so I can watch out for her. When I come home at night I scan the bushes to see if someone is hiding. Those who have had their homes violated have tougher issues. It's hard to relax and feel secure inside your own home when you know someone could come in at any time. Every time you come home you look around to see if anyone is there, or if anything is missing. You buy locks and alarm systems.
I have a dog — a big dog. When I come home and the dog's not acting funny I figure no one is inside. My house was robbed about 10 years ago. I left a window open and the thief pushed the screen in and stole a few things while my family slept upstairs. I tell myself I shouldn't have left the window open. That's true, but, at the same time, it's a shame that you can't leave your window open or park your car in front of your house.
Crime changes the way we live. Having to be ever-vigilant affects the way you act, the way you think and how we relate to each other. It can make you paranoid, and it lengthens the time before you trust new people in your life. It makes a peaceful guy who I've never known to have violent tendencies think about bashing someone's brain in.
And that's a damn shame.
Larry Gabriel is a writer, musician and former editor of Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.