It happens in a flash – you see someone about to commit a robbery, or an agitated-looking person drops a suspicious package into a garbage can along a crowded parade route, or a speeding cyclist grabs your purse and zips away. What should you do?
Increasingly, the answer is to pull out your smartphone. Whether it’s an active crime in progress, a suspicious situation, or just an informational tip, using your phone is an excellent way to retake some control over the environment and help out your fellow citizens at the same time. It’s not a hypothetical – citizen assistance was critical in tracking down and identifying the Boston Marathon bombers in 2013, and has helped resolve any number of lesser-known situations.
There are a number of tools available for the law-abiding person who wants to help the police. One simple and low-commitment approach – follow your local police department or sheriff’s department on Twitter, Facebook, or other social media sites. Not every jurisdiction has a social media presence, but many do, and that online presence is often the easiest and most accessible source of information.
Those sites are mostly about getting information FROM law enforcement – experts advise against using social media to report critical information, as information posted is often public and the sites are usually not monitored 24/7. You don’t want to tip off the bad guys, and you don’t want your time-critical information to sit on a Facebook page over the weekend until the social media intern comes in for another shift.
The simplest way to use your phone for a tip? Just call it in. Don’t call your local law enforcement’s tip line for a crime in progress – that’s what 911 is for. But store the tip line in your phone, and if you have information that could be us of use, make a call. You can also use text services in many jurisdictions, and some municipalities have invested in products like TipSoft, which allow anonymous tips that the police can’t track (really). Be advised, of course, that a non-anonymous tip, by someone willing to be contacted with follow-up questions, is a lot more useful to the police. Many departments and agencies are now creating their own tip applications, some with two-way information streaming so that you can report tips, and get safety bulletins or advisories from the same app.
The picture capability of nearly all phones today is another useful tool. A snapshot of the suspicious package or of the guy on the bus who you saw taking someone’s dropped wallet can be extremely valuable to investigating officers. Phones with web capability can access the police department’s website, where there are often online forms for tips that aren’t urgent but where a little structure and guidance can help get the most useful information from you.
And of course, you can always use your phone to call the local police and ask to make an appointment to just come in and talk to someone face to face. Even in our high-tech world, this is often the most valuable kind of tip, because the investigating officer can ask follow-up questions right away. Remember, though, to keep yourself safe – don’t be a hero, and don’t pursue criminals on your own. The idea is to help the professionals, not to replace them.
As anyone who has been victimized by a robber or burglar knows, there are few feelings as disturbing as the sense of loss and violation that accompanies having your personal possessions stolen. The bad news is that while the police always take these crimes seriously, resources are limited and your loss of items worth $50, $500, or even $5,000 is not likely to trigger a huge police manhunt. The good news is that modern communications technologies are making it more and more possible to carry out an effective search for your stolen items.
Before You’re Burgled
Hindsight is 20-20, of course. But although it’s not possible for you to know for sure when or if you’ll be burgled, you can still take common-sense steps ahead of time to increase the chances of getting your things back.
- Copy down serial numbers on electronics and similar devices.
- Take quality digital photographs of high-value items, as well as of items with great personal or sentimental value.
- Install or sign up for a discreet home security system with video surveillance capability.
In The Aftermath
- File a police report immediately upon discovering your victimization. Not the next day, not the next week – right away.
- Start visiting the pawn shops in your area. Despite laws to discourage it, pawn shops are often the fences of first resort, especially for novice criminals. If you find your stuff, don’t try to buy it back or confront the pawn shop workers; ask the shop to hold it for you and then call the cops.
- Follow up at least weekly with the local police to see if their investigation has made progress.
In The Long Term
- Work your social network. Post pictures of the missing item(s) and ask your friends (especially those in geographical proximity) to keep an eye out for items for sale matching yours.
- Check eBay, Craigslist and Backpage daily. These sales sites have become the fences of first resort for the NON-novice thief, because they are difficult to track and the volume of ads makes it easier to hide stolen property. If you spot your items for sale, again, do NOT try to get them back; call the cops. You’ll find a much warmer response from the police when you’ve already found the perpetrator for them.
- There are a number of web sites that facilitate the search for stolen goods. One good one is Stolen911.com, which does automated searches for your items on a variety of different sales sites. There are also specific sites that specialize in one type of stolen item, like StolenBicycleRegistry.com
You may or may not be able to get back what was taken from you, but if you play smart and keep an ear to the ground, you do have at least a chance of seeing some of your property again.
The recent tragic shootings in Arizona, Colorado, and Connecticut have focused renewed national attention on the role of guns in our daily lives. Regardless of one’s position on the issue, there are certain facts which every American needs to recognize in order to minimize danger to ourselves and our families, and to deal with the present guns in a safe and responsible way.
There Are A Lot of Guns
Gun ownership overall has declined either slightly or somewhat in recent decades (depending on who you ask) but the decline comes from a starting point of extremely widespread gun ownership. The percentage of households that have at least one firearm varies, unsurprisingly, from region to region. City dwellers are less likely to have firearms than rural denizens, and southern and western states generally have higher rates of firearm ownership. However, the overall numbers are quite large: somewhere between 1 in 3 and 1 in 2 households have at least one firearm, and there are thought to be at least 270,000,000 guns of all types in the United States, almost one per person.
Unless you are locking your children in the basement of your gun-free home (and not permitting them cable TV or Internet), they are certain to encounter guns in the media and on the Net, and they are very, very likely to encounter guns in real life as well. Parents should refrain from assuming they know what their kids have seen or touched. In one study of parents who reported their child as having never seen a (real) gun, 20% of those reports were falsified when the children themselves acknowledged having seen or touched a gun.
Knowledge is Power
Teaching our children about gun safety means teaching them about guns. As parents, there is always the temptation to wishfully hope that if only kids don’t know about a sensitive topic, that topic can’t hurt them. Alas, things do not work that way. The best way to reduce the hazard posed by guns is to learn about them, how they work, what they’re for, and in some cases how to handle one.
The National Rifle Association (NRA) has a very well-regarded gun safety program for young people. Under the ‘Eddie the Eagle’ program, kids (even those too young to learn to shoot) learn the following critical gun safety tips when they see a gun that isn’t being properly used by an adult:
- DON’T TOUCH.
- LEAVE THE AREA.
- TELL AN ADULT.
These are simple enough for even very young children, while covering the basic elements of keeping safe.
Adults and older children can learn even more. There are two basic categories of safety rules: rules to cover the operation and firing of the gun, and rules to cover the safe storage of the gun, often in a home.
The first category can be learned at almost any shooting range, which offer gun-safety courses, some under the NRA banner and some independent. These rules include common-sense behaviors as never pointing a gun at anyone (loaded or unloaded), never put your finger on the trigger until you are actually ready to shoot at something, always aim a gun in the least-dangerous possible way (usually down), and perhaps most importantly, assume that an empty weapon is a loaded weapon. Although accidental shootings are a relatively small portion of the deaths in which guns played a role, many accidental shootings reflect individuals who thought their weapon was unloaded, when it was not.
The second category of rules, how to maximize gun safety in your own home, has a bit more scope.
Lock it Up
About 200,000 firearms are stolen from individual owners each year. Criminals love to steal guns; they can use them or they can sell them, and demand is always strong. When not in use, your guns need to be in a locked and concealed safe, chest, or other box. In addition, your guns should be stored with trigger locks (which prevent the gun from firing) and/or cable locks (which prevent the gun’s action from operating).
Keep It Empty
Store your guns unloaded to prevent accidental discharges when you are retrieving a gun from the safe, and to minimize the immediate danger if an intruder manages to defeat the lock(s) and steal weapons. Keep ammunition somewhere discreetly away from where you store your guns – but be sure that YOU remember where it is, and how to get working access to a gun (out of the safe, locks off, bullets in) in the minimum possible time.
Don’t Teach Safety – Live It
Well, teach it too – but study after study, to say nothing of ordinary common sense, tells us that kids treat guns the way their parents treat guns. If you act like your rifle is a toy, do not be surprised when your kids – who lack your judgment about when such joking around is harmless – pick up the habit. Send kids to the Eddie Eagle class, but more importantly, let your children see you attending the grownup gun safety class, and practicing good range safety, and being scrupulous about safety rules in the home. That example will set the pattern that your children need to be able to follow – and if you don’t do it, who will?
Be a Pro
Lots of us have various items that we mean to learn how to use properly, but never do. The kayak sits collecting spider webs in the garage and the fancy new computer (the one we were going to use to learn databases) has never run anything but Facebook. Those are harmless – but having guns on a casual, uneducated, “I’ll go to the range next year” basis is irresponsible. If you are going to have guns, then you owe it to yourself, your neighbors, and your family to take the time to learn the operation of the weapon. Learn how to shoot, how to aim, how to maintain, how to clean – all tasks, by the way, where taking the ‘Learn Kayaking…Eventually’ approach can literally get someone killed. Your local gun store can recommend classes (and probably offer some themselves), and your local shooting range is usually an outstanding source of practical education on how to safely bear arms.