A city steeped in crime

Elaine A. Richman

February 03, 1993|By Elaine A. Richman

ONE of the most popular conversation topics in Baltimore these days is crime. City people are having to cope with a lack of ease in streets, parking lots, movie theaters, along sidewalks and in their homes. Not a neighborhood in Baltimore has been spared.

We are definitely nervous. We look over our shoulders, stroll or jog only in daylight hours, lock car doors, limit children's outdoor play, install alarms and even buy guns. Crime has changed our lives.

The threat to personal safety is real and, according to experts, it is wise to think ahead to what you would do if faced with the threat of serious bodily harm.

Screaming is good. In the majority of cases, screaming frightens off a would-be attacker because he is usually after an easy mark, not you in particular. Be difficult. He'll seek out someone who is more amicable.

This is exactly how a friend of mine reacted recently when she came face-to-face with a man trying to jimmy the door from her patio to her living room in the middle of the night. She screamed. He ran.

Now she is planning to make her home more secure. She'll install an alarm system or buy a gun. Compare the long-term cost of an alarm system to the one-time price of a gun, and it is easy to understand why so many people opt for the latter.

I had a similarly terrifying experience not too long ago. It changed my life and the way I think about safety. The offender actually entered my home, in broad daylight, when I was the only one there.

My story illustrates the importance of thinking through your options for protecting yourself and your family and friends. I was in my basement office when suddenly I became aware of footsteps overhead. My first response was inaction. For about 15 seconds I was too shocked to do anything.

Finally I dialed 911 and found my call answered too slowly by a woman drawling something like, "Fire, ambulance or police?" By this time the footsteps were moving down the stairs and drawing nearer my closed office door. I was terrified.

Disoriented and in a panic, I yelled "Fire!" to the 911 operator and scrambled to find refuge under my desk. As the doorknob turned, I was sure I was about to experience something horrible.

The door swung open, and in walked my husband. He had stopped at the barber on the way to work and couldn't stand the feel of the scratchy little hairs down his back. He'd come home to shower.

This experience taught me that in a moment of panic we cannot depend on rational thought. I took too long to call the police. I was too frozen by fear to find a real hiding place. And if I'd had a gun in the desk drawer, I might well have shot the intruder. I believe I would have pulled the trigger even before the office door opened. I would have shot my husband.

My "catastrophe" could have been avoided if my home alarm system had been turned on or if I'd thought in advance to have a key on hand to an outside door with a deadbolt lock. It's about 10 feet from where I sat.

Friends confess that they still resist locking doors and keeping house alarms set at all times. Some still hold the antiquated notion that alarms are for times the house is empty, not for when it's occupied. Petty crimes of rifled glove compartments, stolen bicycles, lawn equipment and outdoor furniture go unreported because people believe the police don't really care. When the tally grows large enough, they will.

With uncountable crimes, including nearly one killing in Baltimore City for each day of 1992, it behooves everyone to be cautious. "Don't buy a gun!" I plead with my friends. Do lock doors and windows. Establish citizen patrols. Leave outside lights on at night.

Adopt a big dog or install a security system. I failed the test of crime by being unprepared. But we have to be prepared. It's part of city living in 1993.

Elaine A. Richman writes from Baltimore.

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