Tuesday, January 19, 2010

To Lock or Not to Lock? Questions of Personal Security

Apparently, as unforgiving as New York City is reputed to be, a growing number of people have revealed that they don't bother to lock their front door, or only lock up on specific occasions. I couldn't pass on the opportunity to write about this because it reminded me of an early conversation with someone who is now one of my dearest friends.

It began when her house guest learned she didn't lock her front door when she was in her apartment. She nonchalantly confirmed that he was right, if she was home, she didn't see a reason to lock her door. If I remember the moment correctly, I believe it was in this instant that I looked at her as though she had grown giant green tentacles from her head. Radiating incredulity, I remember asking her, in a somewhat scandalized tone, whether she had heard of home invasions. At this point, she looked at me as though I had sprouted green tentacles from my head, and shrugged, noting that this was Chapel Hill, not at all like the Den of Iniquity I hailed from. Still, after much haranguing by me, the paranoid New Yorker, she started locking her door—at least when I was there with her.

When did the idea of personal safety become so, well, personal? Some of the folks reported not locking up because they live in a building with a doorman, which they feel is sufficient to prevent unauthorized persons from entering their homes. By leaving their doors unlocked, they're recreating a sense of "small town security." And it is this sense of security that others who don't have the benefit of doormen cite—they trust their neighbors. Their attitude has been characterized with the following thinking:
I am a free and easy person who is more concerned that my house is open to any friend who wants to drop by than with possessions. I live in a fine building in which people know and respect one another and there is no need to lock my door. I live in a building in which we are all good friends, and if someone who has a few too many drinks walks in by mistake one night and falls asleep on the couch, it’s a good story that proves what a friendly place this is.
While a sense of trust in your community and neighbors is a good thing—and in some ways helps to create your sense of "home"—this seems like a very fragile arrangement. Some in the article mention a loss of faith in theft deterrent measures as a reason for not locking up. Does this response seem a bit preemptive? It appears to run counter to the protection offered by the herd. If we're all locking our doors, then we're acting in concert to reduce opportunities for burglaries. One instance of not locking up, even if it's in a "closed system," compromises safety. The security cited by "No Lock People" is flawed—the doorman could step away from his post, or someone could leave the main door unlocked, or you could find yourself having to stay away from your apartment longer than expected, etc. Anything can happen. Of course, you could double and triple bolt your door, and still be the victim of a burglary. But why make things easier for a would-be thief?

The comments have been interesting to review. They represent a varied view of personal safety—former city dwellers who never locked up are bolting their doors in the suburbs, and No Lock People who have always lived outside of urban areas talk about how they have never felt threatened, didn't feel threatened until they were robbed, or changed their minds after being verbally accosted about locking up. One commenter shared the following:
"I shared a house with a no-lock person in grad school. She would leave the back door unlocked all the time. I asked her politely to lock up and she said 'I prefer to trust people'. I could never make her understand that it was unreasonable for her to put my possessions at risk as well."
People have a right to determine their own measures of safety, but not at the expense of others. Personal safety is therefore a much more public issue than one may initially think. Yes, we want laws in place to protect us. But personal safety is also dependent on the things we do to support those laws. Personal safety is tied to public behaviors:
"The no lock people say that a determined burglar will get in whether the doors are locked or not, which is true, but I would say most burglars are not that determined! They're opportunists, rattling doorknobs, looking for the fool who hasn't locked up so they can make a quick and easy buck. We mistakenly left our car doors unlocked a couple of years ago when someone was going up and down the street breaking into cars. He/she wasn't breaking windows or using crowbars, they were just testing door handles. The $60 he took didn't matter as much as the sense of security that evaporated after the break-in. I can only imagine how I'd feel if it had been the house. Anyone who wants into my house needs to get past at least two locks now, and if I'm inside, that's only the start of his troubles."
It's an interesting way to think about the relationships we develop with our surroundings. Are you a Lock or No-Lock person? Me? I'm (mostly) a locker, even though I live in a fairly safe neighborhood, I think you just never know. When I briefly lived in North Carolina, I could never forget that I was a woman living alone, and was an aggressive locker. I don't think I ever allowed myself to relax there. I had a roommate and I don't think I ever trusted her with my safety. Much to my surprise, when I returned to New York, I found I was guilty of leaving the back door unlocked on occasion when I knew that I would be coming "right back." It surprised me. Recent events have caused me to double check when I leave the house to make sure I've locked up, even if I'm coming "right back." But I wonder if I might revert over time. I want to trust my neighborhood, as I'm sure many other people do, but does it make sense to do so when so much is dependent on the actions and desires of others?

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