Email: Fear mongerer or neighborhood policing’s best friend?
Last week I received at least twenty different emails forwarding the same story about a house in my town that was almost burglarized. A man with a rake who appeared to be looking for work knocked on a front door and realized it was open. He went to the sidewalk and consulted with his friends. The owner, who was in the house, locked the door. After the men returned to the front door and found it locked, they tried to open a back door and then a basement window. The owner called 911 and the police caught one of the men. Not exactly high drama, but plenty scary for the owner inside the house.
Each email contained the same information: soliciting is illegal and police want residents to report all solicitors because these individuals might be casing houses.
Almost every email also contained either a subtle or not-so-subtle ratcheting up of the fear. Some emails lamented that our blocks weren’t safe. Others warned that criminals need money for the holidays. One advised that we consider this story as our children start to get older and move around the town without parents. Another suggested that we watch the movie “Taken” because it would make us rethink letting students travel to Europe.
The upside is that I now know that soliciting is illegal and that the police want me to report it. I’m also being more careful about locking my doors, a good habit in any event.
But here’s the downside to this email flurry. I am discomforted as I move about my town and house in a way that I have never been before. This is true even though I know about the availability heuristic, i.e., the tendency to think events are more probable if we can recall such an event occurring. I also know how bad humans are at processing information about low-risk occurrences. Email only exacerbates this faulty reasoning. The Rakeman story is significantly more available to me than it would have been had I heard about it once or twice through old-fashioned word-of-mouth.
Many would argue that discomfort is good. They are probably right, to a point. But here is what I would have said if I had allowed myself to respond to all those emails: Lock your doors. Be smart. And relax, because you are a lot safer than you think you are.