Tuesday, April 19, 2016

What An Hilarious Failed Thievery Attempt Can Tell Us About Crime

Last night the weather was finally nice enough to sleep with the windows open for the first time this Spring, which is one of my favorite nights of the year (ahead of it on the list: the day we set clocks back and all sleep in, the night before Christmas, the night of my birthday, the night when Brigadoon comes out of the fog). Anyway, around midnight, as I was finally beginning to drift off to sleep, I heard a car door open and for some reason thought someone was breaking into my car. As I sat listening to the noise, I tried to somehow magically determine if it was just my neighbors coming home much later than usual, or if my paranoid first thought had indeed been correct. As I pondered whether I'd remembered to lock the car doors after bringing my groceries in, I had a trio of thoughts that prevented me from caring too much:

1) I leave nothing of value in my vehicle at any time. Mostly because I own nothing of value, but also because I've had my car broken into roughly 857,349 times and have learned my lesson (one of the few downsides to city life).
B) My car has a factory-installed CD player, which is both worthless and really difficult to remove. Given that non-factory CD players comprise the only things ever stolen from my vehicles, I could safely conclude there ain't nothing in there worth taking (or, just as accurately, that I would give a shit if it was taken).
III) What was I going to do? Hop up in the dark, throw some clothes on, find my glasses, run downstairs and then...I dunno, fight them? Yell at them? Explain in detail this is a prime factor in eroding the social trust networks that improve so many life outcomes? Plus, my bed is super comfy and I was super sleepy.

So I went to sleep and promptly forgot about the whole thing. Until I was walking the dog this morning when on the way home, about 50 or so feet from my car, I saw a little black object that looks exactly like my CD carrier. Which, unsurprisingly, turned out to be the CD carrier I keep in my car. Unrelated to the point I'm making, this is by far my favorite part of the story*. After taking the dog home and feeding her, I went out to assess the damage. Fortunately I had left the doors unlocked so they didn't break a window (more on that in a bit). They emptied out the glove box presumably looking to see if I had anything worth taking, but they left everything. Including the nice GPS unit an ex's rich parents had given me for Christmas several years ago. Much like the CDs, this stands as a comical aside of how quickly the value of certain things has deteriorated with the technological changes of the past decade or so.

But as I looked around the car, it became increasingly clear they had taking nothing. Not nothing of value, but just straight up nothing (though, again, I don't keep anything at all valuable in there). Until I remembered that last night after getting groceries, I didn't have a free hand to carry in some of the non-perishables, so I just left them in the trunk figuring I would grab them later. "But surely they didn't," I thought to myself. "Why would they even want that?" I wondered with increasing curiosity as I rounded the back of the car only to open the trunk and find a true horror scene. I had found the one thing they did take from my vehicle:

A 24-pack of Diet Pepsi.

Humorously enough, there are some things of minor value in the trunk -- tools and the like -- which would probably fetch zero dollars but have some utility. But none of that was taken, either. Just the Diet Pepsi. So I have been keeping my eye out for people who look like thieves who don't use tool sets and are watching their figure, but have yet to ID the culprits.

But the question remains -- what does this teach us about the reality of crime? Short answer: a shitload!

For one, this bears all the marks of the crime of convenience, by far the most common type of street crime. Unlike the super intelligent super criminals of the television world, or the clever and always-plotting criminals of bourgeois imagination that lead to ever-hilarious "how to avoid crime" pamphlets, most people who commit these kinds of property crimes don't really plan them out ahead of time. They may have a general plan of "let's test the handles of parked cars," but they don't case vehicles for days scoping out the choicest prize (after all, if they did, they would have known not to bother with my car).

Also, it's not like they broke a window to get in there -- that's probably a level more than this particular group of kids was willing to do. Had I remembered to lock my doors (which I do 99% of the time!), they more than likely would have just moved on down the street. And I say "kids" intentionally, because I can all but guarantee this was a group of teenagers. Not only because I'm now over 30 and therefore do not trust any teenagers for any reason, but because it's been well-documented that these kinds of street crimes are almost exclusively the domain of people in their mid-teens to early-20s, and more often than not, boys rather than girls.

All this speaks to the most important point, which is that people aren't "criminals," they're people. That is to say, I think a lot of folks who aren't criminologists (so, you know, everyone) view people who commit crimes as if that's like their 9-5 or something, like they wake up in the morning and punch the crime clock, trying to work their way up the crime ladder so they can get a big enough crime 401(C)** to retire early and raise some little criminals in the suburbs.

Instead, people who commit these types of property crimes (who most people are referring to when they use the term "criminal") turn out to be not terribly different from most people. Maybe these kids were out specifically trying to steal things from cars that night, but there's also a pretty decent chance this was on a complete whim. But in either case, it's not like they identify as people who occasionally steal things from cars, as if that's what is central to their sense of self. Instead, that's more than likely just one of many things they do during the copious amount of free time teenagers have.

Also fun and related -- this is why official crime stats are not very good. Or are often, pardon the highly-specific scientific jargon, pretty damn shitty. What's often referred to with the super-metal-sounding-for-a-fairly-boring-concept name of the Dark Figure of Crime is the notion that probably well less than half of all crimes committed are ever reported to the police (whether those crimes reported to police ever actually end up in official stats is a whole other story). This story is a prime example of one of the many types of crimes that goes unreported -- even if they had stolen anything of value, it would have to have been very valuable for me to bother reporting it to the police, and then I'd only do that because I assume my insurance would require me to. But in every previous case I've had my car broken into and things actually stolen from it, I never bothered reporting it, because I knew exactly what would happen -- eventually a very polite officer would stop by my house, listen to my story, write down a report, and that report would be filed away somewhere to never be seen again (which is a quite reasonable thing for the police to do, as there is less than zero point to searching for a stolen car CD player, at least of the kind I could afford).

So in the end, this is all just a no-harm, no-foul reminder to lock your car doors when parking on the street. But it taught us some valuable lessons about criminology, and I'd like to think, the importance of taking all the groceries directly inside and putting them away.

*Why is this my favorite part of the story? Because what explains not stealing my CDs, but simply moving them a bit down the road? Like seriously just moving them roughly 50 feet. None were missing, they weren't broken, it doesn't even appear like they were thrown. Just moved. So here's my current theory: one of the guys rooting through my car grabbed them against the protestations of the other fellas. "Come on, these have to be worth something!" he tried to argue, while they all just laughed at him for his naivety (this was his first attempted theft). Now just trying to save face, but having already snatched them up, he carries them for awhile, waiting until all the other guys aren't looking, and then gently sets them down so they don't hear anything and look at what he's doing. Now there are no more CDs, and he can claim he was just kidding the whole time and was, like, never planning on stealing them for real! Shut up, guys!

**The C is for Crime!

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