We who are past 50 find it hard to believe that so much crime has developed since the days when we never locked our doors. We tend to worry that we are vulnerable, that we are being taken advantage of more frequently than younger people.
Most of us rely on the police and sheriff's departments for help in emergencies and protection against crime.
Roger Konczal, police officer with Escondido's Crime Prevention unit, remembers the day when a police officer even had time to answer a call to rescue a cat out of a tree. "We would still do it, but we can't . . .," he said. The explanation is buried in crime statistics.
Actually, according to Konczal, the suspicious natures and observant eyes of the "shades of gray" generation can be significant sources of help to the police. We are quick to note when something is awry, out of the ordinary. Detecting a problem or merely suspecting one often leads to action.
A fair number of newer adult communities today have private security patrols. It is like wearing a belt and suspenders: members are protected both by the patrol and by the sheriff's or police department.
Paul Woods supervises private security in the community of Lake San Marcos, tucked between Carlsbad and San Marcos. TVs, VCRs, CD players and small electrical appliances, items that can be quickly and safely turned into cash, are occasionally taken from homes in this enclave with a mostly over-50 population. Frequently, a raid on the refrigerator accompanies the crime. According to Woods, the thieves are looking not for snacks, but for "cold cash" which they know is often stashed in the fridge.
Drawing on their experiences in North County, Woods and Konczal offered a number of security tips that may be especially appropriate for older men and women, many of whom live alone:
* Although alert observers, many mature folks hesitate to bother the officers late at night, waiting politely until the following day to report last evening's prowler or strange noises. Unfortunately, that is usually too late.
* Those who have alarm systems in their homes need to remember that the system does not catch the thief, it only frightens him or her away. A control panel in the bedroom eliminates the need to move outside of the house to read indicators and push buttons. (It is also a good idea to have a lock on the bedroom door.) Do not have the alarm panel visible from the outside: the little green light is a welcome mat: "Come on in," it beckons, "the system is off, no warning will sound."
* If you have a circuit-breaker panel on the outside of your house, be sure it is locked: if anyone can open that box and fool with the lights, that act draws you outdoors and invites mischief.
* A Neighborhood Watch program is as effective as the residents' participation in it. The program encourages neighbors to keep an eye on one anothers' homes. It is not helpful, however, merely to watch while a neighbor's TV is being hauled away; alert the police immediately and share with them any identification of the thieves and/or their vehicles.
I am particularly sensitive to that advice. Years ago, in Los Angeles, while our apartment neighbors sat at the pool and watched, a stranger entered our front door and left soon after, his pockets filled with jewelry and precious keepsakes. Everyone knew we were at work, but it never occurred to them that something in that scene was wrong.
* There are numerous areas in North County where one can safely walk about at night. It is wise, though, to carry identification.
Woods told the story of a man reported to the police as a suspected prowler. When confronted by police, he had no identification and reacted angrily to the investigating officer. They had an altercation; the man pulled out a knife. Fortunately, no one was hurt. The "prowler" was eventually identified as a resident of the area. When he was released from custody, he returned and apologized to the security officer.
* If you have the feeling that someone is following behind you in a parking lot or sidewalk at night, walk toward the light, do not hesitate to scream when feeling endangered, run if you can. Call the sheriff if a phone is available. When driving, go to the nearest police station, busy gas station or market. Honk your horn all the way.
* A woman should be wary of a man who stops her with an obscene remark; as she turns away in embarrassment, he can (and often does) grab her purse. If, by chance, someone does go after your purse, it is better for your health and safety to let it go.
* In the car, do not place a wallet or pocketbook on the seat or on the floor when driving. It is easy to open the door and grab it. The floor in the back of the car is less visible, but the trunk is best.
* When possible, shop with a friend; it is more fun and safer, too. Carry as little cash as possible and do not burden yourself with so many packages that you impede your ability to maneuver.
* Most home burglaries occur during the morning hours. Answer the door but don't open it; let strangers know someone is home.
* Beware of phone solicitors who ask a lot of questions: how many are in your household; what appliances do you have; how many and what make are your cars? The questions might sound innocent; the answers are chock full of information that can be used to your disadvantage.
* If someone has entered your home, try to get to a phone and call the police. Don't try to be a hero.
* The Crime Prevention Center in Sacramento publishes a fistful of brochures that deal with everyday problems, tips for seniors, personal security, elder abuse, telephone fraud, etc. If the Crime Prevention material cannot be obtained from your local police department, write to Crime Prevention Cener, Office of the Attorney General, P.O. Box 944255, Sacramento 94244-2550.