Crime and punishment

Studies “indicate that across a wide spectrum of the population and independent of local crime rates, viewing local television news is related to increased fear of and concern about crime.” That is consistent with my personal experience. I hardly ever watch TV and definitely not the local TV news. As a result, I tend to be less fearful of crime than those who watch the steady diet of fear-mongering that local news channels depend upon in order to get ratings.

I also live in a quiet tree-lined neighborhood in a middle class community with people walking their dogs and children playing on the sidewalks, and all these feed into the impression that one is living in a crime-free area.

But I recently started subscribing to the local weekly paper that reports the news in about four or five small suburbs including the one I live in. The items mostly consist of local community events and people, city council and school board meetings, and the inevitable zoning controversies of which at least one involves the proposed construction of a McDonalds to which the neighbors object. There is something about a proposed McDonalds that galvanizes opposition in middle-class neighborhoods.

But there is also one curiously fascinating feature that consists of the police blotter that lists all the crimes reported and I must say that reading it changes one’s perception of the neighborhood, reminding one that there is petty crime all around. And when I say petty, I do mean petty. Most of them deal with stolen bicycles left unattended, people entering unlocked garages and homes and stealing small items, minor altercations, and domestic violence.

There was one item that jumped out at me and that was the arrest of a man for stealing a toothbrush. I can’t get that terse one-sentence story out of my mind because it raises so many questions. What would lead someone to steal such a cheap item as a toothbrush? Was it someone who had recently fallen down on his luck but still valued personal hygiene? There seemed to be something poignant about someone who would risk arrest just to get a toothbrush. Or was the ‘thief’ (the word sounds jarringly strong for someone committing such a petty action) a kleptomaniac? Or was it an adolescent who could easily afford to buy it but wanted to steal it as a lark or a dare?

If the theft was out of genuine need, why would the drugstore (which is where presumably the attempted theft occurred) be so hard-hearted as to report such a person to the police? Surely you would give a person so desperate to maintain personal hygiene a chance and perhaps even a toothbrush free of charge? If it was a stupid childish prank, surely a strong warning would have been sufficient?

Another blotter item spoke of the arrest of a person for stealing a 12-oz can of beer. Again, the pettiness of the crime causes one to raise one’s eyebrows and wonder about the story behind the story.

There is often a class element involved in determining whether a petty crime gets reported to the police or not. I recall that when I was in high school in Sri Lanka a couple of boys from my school were caught stealing books from a store down the street. These boys were from well-to-do families who clearly did not need to steal and were presumably doing it for kicks or on a dare or for one of the many other reasons that make young boys act stupidly. Because their families were influential, the matter was hushed up and the boys quietly allowed to transfer to another school. But a little later two classmates and friends of mine who were not members of elite families got caught stealing books from the same store, confirming that young boys are incorrigibly stupid. But in their case, they were immediately expelled with all the shame that accompanies such an outcome, and their case was publicized and made into a stern lesson for us all on the evil of stealing.

There is no doubt that I benefit from the class bias of society in that my honesty is taken for granted for reasons that have nothing to do with knowledge of my personal character. Once at the grocery store I forgot to take the items on the bottom rack of the shopping cart out and place it on the counter for checking out and so they were not rung up. I discovered this only later after paying my bill and heading out the store. When I discovered my error I of course told the cashier and we all laughed at my forgetfulness. I suspect that if I had actually wheeled the cart out of the store without noticing my error, I still would not have been arrested for theft because my age and my ethnicity and my ‘respectable’ demeanor (at least I think I look respectable) would have protected me. It would have been treated as the honest mistake it was. But others who have the ‘wrong’ profile will not be so fortunate and will not be given the benefit of the doubt.

I recall once a conference presentation in a hotel meeting room that I made together with my African-American female colleague. After our session, we cleared up and took our stuff out to make room for the next presenters. I picked up what I thought was my colleague’s expensive-looking coat (she is always well dressed) but it was only later after relaxing in the lobby and getting ready to go home that she said that the coat did not belong to her and I realized that it must belong to the people who had been setting up after us. Her boyfriend was also present and he started to take the coat back to the room to return it, but then stopped and asked if I could do it because he said that it would be awkward for him to do so as people ‘might not understand’. The problem was as clear as it was unspoken. It did not matter that he is a very distinguished-looking and impeccably dressed man who could easily be mistaken for an ambassador or college president, while I was my usual nondescript self. The basic fact was that he is black and I am not, and that made all the difference in whether we would be presumed guilty or innocent of theft.

Most of us are unaware of the class and race privileges we enjoy and assume that it has been eradicated until we are directly confronted with it.

POST SCRIPT: Girl raised from birth by Wolf Blitzer

From The Onion News Network.

Girl Raised From Birth By Wolf Blitzer Taken Into Protective Custody


  1. says

    I agree with your last paragraph “Most of us are unaware of the class and race privileges we enjoy and assume that it has been eradicated until we are directly confronted with it”.
    However, “it is impossible to understand people’s behavior… without the concept of social stratification, because class position has a pervasive influence on almost everything… the clothes we wear… the television shows we watch… the colors we paint our homes in and the names we give our pets… Our position in the social hierarchy affects our health, happiness, and even how long we will live.” -William Thompson, Joseph Hickey, Society in Focus, 2005

  2. Scott says

    I ride public transport to and from work, and the transit police often hop on the buses and trains to check riders to see if they have their tickets (it’s a very complicated system I won’t detail here). The police treat those who forget, or can’t figure out the machines that dispense the tickets, very differently based on race. This is, of course, based only on my personal observations, but so far has seemed consistent.

  3. says

    While crime stories on TV do raise awareness in neighborhoods, I am not sure what effect shoplifting a toothbrush would have on the perception of safety by the general population. If they only saw this announcement on the blotter they may fear that the local homeless population is growing.

  4. says

    Pity compelling case proposed by Mano, But consider this, We are living in and age in this country that their are a lot of teenage birth. What knowledge and wisdom have the adolescent to convey to their their kids?
    Where their is a higher incidence of children living in lesser privileged working class parenting backgrounds allow their kids to roam the streets till beyond midnight. Unfortuntely, where thier is no guidance from the parent, a child grows up learningtheir own misguided rules on life, where there is always “i can have” or “i will have” attitudes without the careful consideration of other =s around them, so some may indeed do illegal, criminal acts, as they did not have that push in life to become an achiever, i.e to further their development in life to become a Doctor, a lawyer a structural engineer, they only thought about dropping out of school earlier and then only to be confronted with the realism of life, that without a sound education their dreams and aspirations are just a bleak, so some result to crime. Don’t get me wrong their could many avenues that some individuals my brank off this tree..

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