We all got the head-scratching e-mail. The one that told us to be safe over the holidays – told us, among other things, to lock our doors, bring our valuables home and to make our houses look occupied.

Sarah Royce

Well, to the University, the city, the police and our landlords, thanks for the heads-up. Besides being painfully obvious, the advice was especially helpful when sent the day after the last final, when campus was already abandoned and when there was little chance of anyone actually believing that our campus homes were brimming with people.

The crime prevention tactics of campus constituencies might be noble, but their efforts have been generally mishandled and misguided.

Though probably the most pointless, the belated e-mail was not the first effort of the Ann Arbor Police Department’s “aggressive” campaign to get students to protect themselves.

The beginning of the fall semester certainly gave the AAPD reason to take notice. The Ann Arbor News reported that the number of break-ins has increased from 706 in 2004 through mid-December to 809 in the same period this year. Similarly, crime was up almost 10 percent in October. To the police’s credit, since October something they changed must be working. Break-ins over Thanksgiving break leveled off when compared to last year and actually decreased over winter break – although I question the AAPD’s records and wonder, with 103 more break-ins, if there was anything left to steal.

And I do agree with the authorities that students need to be smarter and less careless, but by focusing so much of their energy on reminding us kids to do so, the police and city are partially botching the operation.

The problem isn’t that someone didn’t send the holiday crime e-mail on time or that others really thought that flying a “Lock Your Doors” banner over a football game wasn’t a waste of time or money. The problem is that the city should really be thinking about how they can help us – not how we can help ourselves.

For every stupid kid who didn’t lock his door, there is another who is cautious – even paranoid – but still a victim of crime. And for me, each exclamation-point-heavy reminder from AAPD and Co. is a slap in the face. I’m anxious to see if the numbers are any better for crimes that aren’t break-ins – the attacks and reports of prowlers that are infinitely scarier and creepier than your average home burglary.

This past election season, the issue of increased crime in Ann Arbor was posed to two City Council candidates at a debate. For the most part, the candidates answered the question by saying students should do a better job protecting themselves. “Much of this has to be the potential victims of crimes have to take more seriously their role in preventing it,” said Rich Birkett, who eventually lost the election. Birkett then added that students should start carrying cans of Mace.

How disconcerting – especially to those who diligently lock their doors and are still robbed, to my friend who had then been recently stabbed on her walk home, and to me, after my not-so-friendly encounter with a cigarette-smoking Peeping Tom undeterred by a window screen. Blaming crime victims for their victimhood and the mace comment, which later resulted in a round of chuckles from the panel, is insulting, infuriating, insensitive and so on.

Where is the discussion over the police’s role? What about actually catching these criminals, or at least scaring them into abiding the law? Just because there are fewer things to steal and fewer easy victims doesn’t mean there are fewer criminals.

In the grand social contract, the police should uphold the law, strike fear into the hearts of would-be criminals and keep the city’s people safe. Ultimately, they are supposed to offer residents a modicum of comfort and security. By not leaning on the AAPD in its supposed fight against crime, the city’s leaders do a disservice to the community. By putting the burden of crime prevention onto the shoulders of the students and residents, our sense of security – offered by an effective police unit – will eventually be replaced by a sense of paranoia.

In all actuality, the AAPD isn’t doing a horrendous job. They on occasion catch criminals, and a lot of my own personal encounters with them have been positive (here’s a shout-out to the cop who responded to both my Peeping Tom and the gunshots fired outside my house last year). But there is still work to be done. Everyone knows that money is tight, which makes it even more important that time, money and energy are spent in the right direction. There are many city leaders who echo Birkett – who don’t think “that more police walking around the neighborhoods is an effective use of taxpayers’ dollars.” But then there those like Leigh Greden (who not surprisingly beat out Birkett in the 3rd Ward) who recognize the importance of units that catch criminals and the need to hire more police.

I have little problem with sending out low-cost, University-wide e-mails – even if they defy logic in some ways. But to forget and ignore that the government has a bigger role in preventing crime would be unfortunate – especially because I’d like to one day be able to loosen the grip on my purse, unlock my front door without a quickened heartbeat and take down the giant sheet that’s hanging over my window. And no number of patronizing e-mails is going to help me do that.

 

Go can be reached at aligo@umich.edu.

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