Witness to a Theft: Thoughts on Simple Proactivism

However safe we feel in our most familiar environments, we must be vigilant and simply aware of who is present in our immediate area.
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My 9-year-old daughter and I recently witnessed a purse snatching. Any criminal event has the surprise element of a car accident; one moment all is as it should be, the next instant everything has changed. In some cases the event is disappointing, sometimes it is tragic. I am a great believer in trying to do things the proactive, smart way, and witnessing the purse snatching got me thinking about a few basic measures I can take, which I would like to share.

First, I have to stress how ordinary the day was. It was a beautiful, sunny afternoon, around 4 p.m. We were at a gas station situated near our local grocery store, in a perfectly ordinary, family-friendly part of the city. It was busy with a variety of customers pumping gas, regular people running errands just like us. A perfectly ordinary looking, rather well-dressed young man (late teens, khaki shorts, polo shirt) sauntered up and opened the passenger door of a woman's parked car. He grabbed her handbag and took off, running across the parking lot to a waiting car.

The victim ran after the young man, her sandals slapping the pavement as she cried out for help and for someone to call 911. It was her sandals I heard first. As soon as my mind registered what was happening, I could make out her words.

My first response was to open my car door and tell my daughter to lock hers. I told her to give me my cell phone and while I dialed, I watched as best as I could so as to get a clear imprint of the purse snatcher's appearance, which I later provided to a dispatcher. I did not leave my car as my child was inside.

The red car, the petty criminal and his driver got away. The customers rallied, doing what little they could. One man was able to partially memorize the plates, another paid for the victim's gas; others stayed with the woman to console her. I eased my car away from its spot by the tanks, consoling my daughter as I slowly drove out. We looped around a car still parked in its spot by the tanks. A young boy, about my daughter's age, was seated in the passenger side front seat.

Seeing that he and his infant brother (strapped in behind him, content with his pacifier) were alone, I came to a rolling stop. The boy called out to me in the most plaintive of voices, "Do you know where my mom is?" Evidently, this boy's mother had witnessed the crime and reactionarily taken off to help pursue the criminal. I told the little boy we'd stay parked there until his mother came back and asked him to lock his doors and whether he could close his windows as well. As the car wasn't running, all he could do was lock the doors. A minute later, the mother returned; after a few words of parting mutual support, my daughter and I headed home.

Our local news has featured segments in which they warn viewers of this very type of crime, where handbags are stolen from passenger sides of unlocked cars while people are filling gas tanks. What has been missing, I realize now, is that beyond guarding against material loss, no mention of passengers, in particular our children, has been made. But we do hear of carjackings, with vehicles in which infants and children are indeed strapped into their car seats. Likely mistake 1) having the car unlocked. Likely mistake 2) having the keys in the car. Although there are instances where situations go quickly beyond anything a victim can do, we can and should take simple steps to help minimize opportunity for would-be perpetrators:

- However safe we feel in our most familiar environments, we must be vigilant and simply aware of who is present in our immediate area. No one at that crowded gas station noticed that young man walking into the scene, yet it was a place designed solely to accommodate vehicular traffic and customers.

- Keep your key/key fob with you at all times.
Lock your car with your kids inside when you get gas.
Lock your car for the few seconds it takes you to park your grocery store cart.
Lock your car the moment you seat yourself inside it. Do not wait for the auto lock to engage.

(For that matter, keep the doors to your house locked. I am astounded to hear via neighborhood crime watch bulletins of unlocked, alarm-less houses and not only that, of con men - perfect strangers! - being let into houses and into cars. Regard them as one does in vampire lore: You do not invite them in.)

- As for your handbag, I frankly don't care where you toss it in your car, as it should make no difference if you are locking up. If you are still carrying oodles of cash, I say get with the century. Honestly, in cases that might ever involve a child passenger, I would happily toss my purse after the thief and say good riddance.

- Keep electronic and paper files of your credit/bank card customer service phone numbers so you and/or your partner can immediately call to cancel your cards. My husband and I have credit card info, some encrypted with a simple code we have devised, stored in our contacts. In my case, priority one remains to prevent a child of mine being traumatized by someone reaching into the car or worse yet, trying to take off with them inside. Material loss - cash or the bag - should be the least of our worries. The trauma of any assault on our selves and sense of safety is difficult enough.

And specifically as regards our beloved little passengers:

- Their safety needs to remain a priority. I would suggest not leaving them under any circumstance to help in a situation as I described above. The fear and tears displayed by both the young boy and my daughter made that point clear to me, and the purse snatchers were undeterred by the additional vigilantism, however well intended it might have been.

- As parent, be vigilant and meticulous in the many new instances where you will now lock your doors. If about town, don't cue up the on board disc players or televisions and turn your children off to the world around them. Teach awareness to your child, look out windows and discuss where you are. Play games with street names and locations so that your children are imprinted with a naturally proactive sense of time and place.

- Lastly, raise yourself as parent to possess authority with your children so that when you demand something from them in a moment of potential danger, they immediately do as they are told. If you are vigilant as parent, they will recognize by the very tone of your voice that they have no choice. In calmer, later moments, there is plenty of time for consoling, explanation and key conversation. What our children need first of all from us is their safety and security. Instilling discipline and respect in our children will work not only to build foundations of wisdom and the ability to make smart decisions; we need to know that, in a moment of crisis, they can and will immediately obey us.

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