Essay

On safety and security

(originally posted 12/14/15) If you live in a first-world country, you are pretty safe from harm. If you live a middle-class or better lifestyle in a first-world country, you are overwhelmingly safe.

Of course, my neighbors on Nextdoor, an online bulletin-board system for neighborhoods, might not agree. They wring their hands all the time about crime and safety. They share the weekly police blotter and links to crime statistics and to a database of where all the sex offenders live. They recommend their security-alarm companies to each other, talk about starting neighborhood watches, and pester the city to increase police patrols and install more street lights. My Nextdoor feed crackles with fear.

It’s a matter of time, I’m sure, before one of my neighbors on Nextdoor links to this interactive tool on Slate which maps every reported shooting across the United States in the last year. Type your address and bingo. I find five shootings within a two-mile radius of my house. Cue the Nextdoor discussions about police patrols and alarm systems. Something must be done!!!!

Entry system

Perhaps I’ve not been concerned enough about crime. Half the time, my car is unlocked; it’s old and there’s nothing in there worth having anyway. I don’t lock my doors during the day when I’m at home. Heck, I first installed deadbolt locks on my doors only this year. I had painted the doors and installed new doorknobs and locks, and decided I might as well finally have deadbolts installed while I was at it.

Even worse, once or twice a year I manage to drive away from here for the day and leave my garage door up, providing easy access to the whole house. I’m such a doofus.

Yet every time I get home, nothing is disturbed. Actually, I’ve largely escaped crime my whole life. I had one close call as an adult, in the early ’90s. Wham! bam! rattle rattle rattle! on my front door, and then the back door, in the middle of the night. Woke me right up and scared the bejabbers out of me. But my locked doors deterred the would-be burglar. Or maybe it was a drunk trying to enter the wrong house. Either way, the police didn’t find him. It’s the only time I’ve ever needed police because of crime.

That’s not to say terrible things can’t happen. About five years before I moved in here, my next-door neighbor’s house was ransacked and burglarized while he was at work. And of the shootings the Slate tool found near my home, one of them made national news. Maybe you saw the stories on TV. It was the brutal murder in 2015 of a young mother, a pastor’s wife, in a home invasion. She was pregnant with their second child. It was truly, breathtakingly, stunningly awful.

Dangerous people do exist. It’s easy, natural even, to fear encountering one of them someday.

But let’s consider the real risk. I like to think of risk as the product of likelihood and impact — what’s the chance a bad thing will happen, and how bad will it be if it does?

The other four shootings within two miles of my home appear to have involved people who knew each other — domestic violence situations or fights between familiars at a bar. This is terrible stuff, no doubt. But if you’re in a reasonably healthy relationship and have reasonably stable friends, you’re extremely unlikely to find yourself shot in either of these ways. Even if a shooting of this nature happens next door to you, you are enormously unlikely to be injured by it. And home invasions are so rare that they always make the news, even in this, the 14th largest city in the United States. Same goes for the mass shootings and domestic terrorism incidents that happen nationwide: you are more likely to be crushed by a bookcase falling on you than to be shot by a terrorist. So said The Washington Post, with stats to back it up:

Consider, for instance, that since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Americans have been no more likely to die at the hands of terrorists than being crushed to death by unstable televisions and furniture. Meanwhile, in the time it has taken you to read until this point, at least one American has died from a heart attack. Within the hour, a fellow citizen will have died from skin cancer. Roughly five minutes after that, a military veteran will commit suicide. And by the time you turn the lights off to sleep this evening, somewhere around 100 Americans will have died throughout the day in vehicular accidents – the equivalent of “a plane full of people crashing, killing everyone on board, every single day.”

But obviously, the impact of being shot, whether through terrorism or crime, is enormously high. The impact of having your house broken into while you’re away is fairly high. The impact of having, say, your lawn mower stolen from your front yard is frankly fairly low. It’s irritating and costly to the tune of a few hundred dollars, and you’re not likely to forget it. But if you’re in at least the middle class, you’ll recover pretty quickly.

And so you can and should do reasonable things to protect yourself. I was well overdue to have those deadbolts installed. And I should always leave my car locked to deter casual thieves — it’s easy to hit the lock button on my keyfob as I walk away.

Yet I have no plans to install an alarm system. I had one once, during my first marriage, that my wife had installed over my objections. (I had that kind of marriage.) I didn’t like having it armed when I was inside because I had to temporarily disarm it just to step out to get the mail. I usually forgot to arm it when I left. Once, I came home to find it armed, could not remember the code, and got a visit from the sheriff, angry at the waste of his time. I hated the constant weight of managing the alarm, when the events it protected me against were highly unlikely anyway.

I could buy a handgun, maybe even get a concealed-carry permit. Someone breaking in wouldn’t have a chance! Except that I know myself: I’d strap that gun on every day for a while, but soon I wouldn’t like how it made me think about an enormously unlikely event every day. So the gun would lie in a drawer in my bedroom. Then on the day an assailant did bust in through the patio door, I’d be just as screwed as if I didn’t have the gun.

You may choose differently on the alarm system and the firearm. Please do; I have no judgment to offer you. And I hope you don’t judge my desire not to think all the time about something awful but enormously unlikely, not to expend anything more than easy energy protecting against it. I want to live a life as carefree and relaxed as I can, and be free of needless anxiety.

Regardless of what measures you take to protect yourself from crime, someone can get around them. As the locksmith installed my deadbolts, he told me a story of a woman whose deadbolts he installed. Two days later, someone broke in anyway. Hacked the doorframe to pieces to get in. She called him back to fit new locks into a new door and frame.

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10 thoughts on “On safety and security

  1. Likelihood and impact, Jim that’s a very sensible way to think about so many things that may or may not happen, and then decide what measures we might – or night not – want to put in place.

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  2. analogphotobug says:

    Having grown up in the inner city I lock down everything and the process does not stress me out. Just depends on how and where you grew. I like my alarm system. In my small town the Police are very responsive to calls from Alarm companies. Just encouraging the bad teens that do most of our house breaking to rob my neighbors instead of me.

    What would be nice is if people that grew up like you could have more understanding for people who grew up like Me.

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    • I grew up working class. The neighborhood I grew up in was safe enough I suppose but there were many far better neighborhoods.

      What’s most interesting to me is how the world you were born into creates a set of unwritten rules for life in you, and they never entirely leave you. I work in an upper-middle-class career and I always feel like I don’t quite fit because I can’t quite shake my working-class roots. There are different rules here than I grew up with. I’ve learned many of them, and have adapted well enough, but it has taken me decades.

      Where I go to church, there is real poverty. After dusk, you probably shouldn’t be on the street, especially if you’re not known there. It’s eye opening. They live by unwritten life rules that are just as different to me.

      So you’re right: it would be nice if all of us could try to understand each other better, at least as relates to where we came from and how it shapes us.

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  3. Michael says:

    We had never experienced auto dead-locks on a car before, living in Europe. But driving thro’ LA and Miami, my wife truly appreciated the security. Your car makers these days are now offering bullet-proof glass as standard, I guess?

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    • I don’t like my car’s doors automatically locking. I wish they didn’t do that. But you can’t get a car in the US anymore where the doors don’t lock themselves. So far bulletproof glass isn’t standard on US cars though!

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