Child predators & citizen cops: part two

Where are the limits to the rights of self-protection? Has the internet’s ability to make instant connections also created instant-cops who can go too far?

Earlier today I posted a story about a suspected predator in my local San Francisco park who turned out to be an innocent man — but only after his photo and suspicions of his being a predator had circulated widely on the internet and local TV, thanks to a campaign started by an anxious mom. She had spotted him near the playground, unaccompanied by a child.

Several readers have weighed in off-site to say I should have more sympathy for the mom, because she was only protecting her child and others. Maybe.

Years ago, when my own children were growing up in an urban area comparable in potential lurking dangers to San Francisco today, there was a man who appeared around elementary schools over a period of months, exposing himself to little girls. He became fairly famous among teachers, parents and children as “the man in the white car”, though he always managed to elude the police.

One afternoon when my then 7-year-old daughter was walking home alone (the school was about 3 blocks distant and the times were not quite so parentally protective) a white car pulled alongside her, stopped just ahead and the passenger-side door opened. But about a half block away was my 9-year-old son, lagging an appropriate distance behind.  He sped up, taking a pencil out of his pocket and calling his sister’s name, which was enough to cause the white car to scratch off — but not before they had written down his license number. Extraordinary children, of course, as they are mine, but to be truthful every kid in town had been so thoroughly trained in what to do it was practically a reflex reaction.

The man lived about a mile away. The police paid several calls on him. Because he had not been actually caught doing anything, and it had been over six months since the last episode, involving a child who couldn’t give any description, he was not accused of anything. But the police knew where he lived (as did I, since they drove my son by the house to reconfirm it was the car) and he knew they knew, and he knew his license number was in a file of some sort that could be easily found. That was the last episode involving the man in the white car and local schools.

Could he have gone on to frighten, and possibly molest, other children? Probably. Should we have painted a red “X” on his door, or taken his picture and put it up in the post office? I don’t think so. Plenty of phone calls flew back and forth, but there were no cellphone cameras or e-mails or internet sites at the time so the net was not cast quite as wide. And nobody called the TV station.

I am still pretty sure the man in the white car was a bad guy. We now know the man in the neighborhood park was not. In either case, there’s that business of being innocent until proven guilty. Trial by internet can mess with the system, which while imperfect is still the best we’ve got.

Texting/phoning drivers meet ghostly end

Call it unfair if you want, but those of us wishing we could get texting/phoning drivers off the road are pulling for Car #1453.

POLICE car No. 1453 drifted along with the afternoon rush, unnoticed and unhurried. Even, perhaps, unfinished.

Car 1453 looks as if it rolled off the assembly line a few minutes too soon, before arriving at the machine that puts the siren on the roof and the colors on the door decals. But this look is the whole point of No. 1453, which is known throughout the Westchester County police department by its catchier nickname: the ghost car.

“Can you see it?” an officer joked, standing in front of the car in the department’s parking lot.

The police hope that the answer among drivers texting or chatting on cellphones, or speeding or driving drunk, is no.

The car, a 2009 Crown Victoria, joined the fleet two months ago. It is not an unmarked police car, but rather a barely visibly marked police car. It bears all the same decals as a regular police car, but they are white, colorless, like the car itself. The markings really are noticeable only upon close inspection — and hardly noticeable at all, the thinking goes, to a driver who is calling in his pizza order.

“You’re seeing more of what the common man sees,” Officer Brian Tierney, 32, said about the advantage the car bestows. “Everyone’s on their best behavior when the teacher’s in the room.”

According to the Governors Highway Safety Association, six states plus the District of Columbia and Virgin Islands currently ban handheld cell phone use while driving, and 19 states plus D.C. and Guam ban texting while driving. Kansas and Alaska are among states currently considering a ban on one or the other. But catching violators, and proving the violation, is another matter.

“It’s really, really, really difficult to enforce that,” said Jonathan Adkins, spokesman for the Governors Highway Safety Association. “You can’t have a law that the public doesn’t support.

“It’s a lot like drunk driving. Twenty years ago, it was hard to do anything about it because it was being done in such wide numbers.”

The goal of the ghost car is to make enforcement less difficult. The department did not want a fully unmarked car, because motorists can become spooked by what may seem to be a fake police officer pulling them over.

The idea came from Officer James O’Meara, 27, who holds a bachelor’s degree in graphic arts and computer design. “I heard about it,” Officer O’Meara said of the car’s white-on-white design, although he could not recall which department was involved. While “low profile” police cars — with no light rack on the roof — are widely used, it is unclear how common ghost cars are.

Uniformed officers drive Westchester’s ghost car, which, while intended to look like a taxi, down to its livery license plate, is clearly a police car when seen close up. “I thought you were a taxi” is commonly heard from drivers.

In case you think texting while driving is just fine, and you yourself are perfectly able to drive safely while doing so, you are invited to try the little game below:

Game: Gauging Your Distraction

This space welcomes your comments on how you did. I’m also open to hearing how you should be entitled to drive while texting or phoning or committing other ridiculous automotive crimes against civility. I’ll just continue to hope you’re not doing them in my ‘hood. We don’t have the ghost car, but maybe we can get one.

In Westchester County, a ‘Ghost’ Police Car Is on Patrol – NYTimes.com.

Identity Theft: Crime without Punishment

Caitlin Kelly posted a raw but fascinating essay earlier today, My Con Man Wasn’t Madoff, but Just as Ruthless and Deceptive, that took me back to another cautionary tale worth sharing.

My son, who flies for a major U.S. airline, came home from a trip a few years back, got off the plane and called his then-fiancee (she married him soon, happily for all concerned.) “I’m at the park with a picnic,” she said; “come on out.” It was a beautiful summer afternoon. Changing into casual clothes, he drove straight to the park and found her at the designated spot, where they shared a lovely, leisurely time.

Things were not lovely when he returned to his car. It had been broken into, in broad daylight on a well-traveled street. The thief had made off with his pilot’s uniform and airline ID, his daybook, checkbook, wallet, computer, ID — his life. Plus the financial life of a family he’d been advising with a church group, also on his computer hard drive.

After reporting the crime to the police, my son began the arduous task of rebuilding his life: canceling credit cards, changing passwords, you may know the drill. Within a very short time he discovered that the thief — who had to look somewhat like his white, male, 30-something target since he was using photo ID all over the place — had left a paper trail any incompetent novice detective could follow. Problem is, nobody wanted to bother.

Why? Banks were unconcerned with those few several-hundred-dollar checks; they covered the losses. Retailers said insurance would cover the illicit purchases; they cared not one whit about losses that ran into the thousands. The police had other fish to fry, and explained with a galling indifference that even if they hauled the guy into court he’d probably get off, or quickly out of jail.

The thief eventually quit cashing checks with my son’s name inexpertly forged, and the credit cards soon lost their usefulness — so presumably he went on to another victim. But who picks up the tab for all this? You and I, Mr. and Ms. John Q. Public, thanks to those losses being passed directly along through jacked-up prices and hidden or not-so-hidden fees.

It is hard, when you’re the victim and know you could easily find the victimizer, to accept the fact that justice will not be done. Especially when a huge chunk of your life has gone to replacing and rebuilding that life. But just as Caitlin found with her con man, crimes that loom large to many of us simply go unpunished. So we swallow hard, lock our doors and learn not to leave everything in the car.

We are enjoying seeing Bernie Madoff’s stuff auctioned off while he sits in prison; he’s paying for a few of the fish that were too little to fry. But it doesn’t seem quite enough.