Crime Times

Safety Zone reinforces suburban fears

Illustration by Bob AulI've gotten a lot more paranoid about things lately. I suspect my hairdresser of plotting to kill me. Golf courses suddenly seem like death traps. I shriek involuntarily at the sight of a sprout on my plate.

The reason? I've been spending way too much time on the Times OC's Safety Zone site.

Safety Zone, located at www.latimes.com/editions/orange/safety, is the expanded Internet version of the Times' Safety Zone feature, which runs every Monday in the Orange County section. The online Safety Zone is dedicated to warning readers about the dangers that lurk in every unwashed hand, every unrefrigerated chicken breast and every dark alleyway. Among the valuable tips for averting threats to life and limb the Safety Zone has provided us with:

•Don't loiter on railroad tracks.

•Look both ways before crossing the street.

•Wear your seat belt.

•Always yell "FORE!" when your golf shot goes awry.

No doubt to follow soon: don't hit yourself in the head with a pickax, avoid plugging in appliances with your tongue, and never, ever play in front of a moving bus.

The feature debuted a little more than a year ago, part of a whole package of changes the Times unveiled in November 1998 "designed to make our Metro section more valuable to our readers." (Translation: designed to help transform the Times OC into a Reg clone.) In addition to the types of tips I've mentioned above, the Safety Zone includes "Action Logs" excerpting details from police blotters throughout the county and offering links to law-enforcement Web sites.

Obviously, I've picked out the silliest examples above (and really, it's hard to take a site seriously when it's warning you about the lethal dangers lurking within bean sprouts). The Safety Zone also offers a number of articles giving tips for protecting yourself from crime, including purse snatchers, "bump and rob" artists, muggers, and telephone fraud. A representative article: "Protecting Yourself From Attack," which consists of a list of things one can do to protect oneself from sexual assault, including never letting strangers into your home and avoiding isolated areas such as underground garages. Conspicuously not included in the list are tips for protecting yourself from your husband, your boyfriend, the guy next door and your co-workers; the Safety Zone apparently believes that all rapes are committed by shadowy strangers who stalk you in deserted parking lots and hide in the back seat of your car. In fact, Justice Department statistics show that 68 percent of rapists are someone the victim knows; by contrast, the aforementioned shadowy strangers commit only 28 percent of rapes.

And that's my biggest beef with the Safety Zone site: it's contributing to the atmosphere of needless paranoia and erroneous fear of crime that plagues the nation. Bureau of Justice statistics show that violent crimes declined by 7 percent this year and property crimes were down 12 percent, continuing a decline that has been going on for a good 20 years. And yet we live in an era in which stupid laws like Three Strikes can put a person behind bars for life for the crime of stealing a bottle of vitamins, some cookies or a slice of pizza. We live in an era in which the number of prisoners condemned to die has skyrocketed and a judge's opposition to the death penalty can keep him or her off the bench. We live in an era in which Pete "Divide and Conquer" Wilson can propose with a straight face that we try 14-year-olds as adults and sentence teenage gang members to death.

The Safety Zone site does not appear entirely conscious of the incongruity. Right next to articles with headlines such as "How to Limit Vulnerability to Street Crime" are stories with headlines like "Crime Rates Continue Record 7-Year Plunge." The police incident reports on the daily Safety Zone Action Log typically consist largely of petty thefts, stolen cars and vandalism. It's a weird conjunction that, given the fear-and-loathing feel of the rest of the site, makes absolutely no sense.

I know, I know: it's just a fluffy little site designed to reinforce fear-driven suburbanites' view of the world and make the Times OC seem all paternalistic and concerned about its readers' safety. I should feel a little silly ranting on about such a minor blip on the nation's Paranoia Radar Screen. But, gosh darn it, I don't. The Times OC could be devoting the time and money it has lavished on the Safety Zone to ferreting out corruption among government officials, reporting on widespread social injustices and in general doing what newspapers are supposed to do. Instead, it has its talented reporters wasting their time on pedestrian safety and insurance fraud.

And, worse, we've all seen the real, deleterious effects this unrealistic fear of crime can have. Since the Columbine massacre, kids have been suspended, expelled and in some cases arrested for the crime of being different, while their bullies and tormentors have been ignored. New York Führer Rudolph Giuliani has repeatedly violated thousands of people's civil rights in the name of safer streets. Sheriffs across the country are handing out concealed weapons permits like they were M&Ms. And thatmakes me afraid. Consider the horrific abuses committed in the '50s due to fear of communism, and just imagine what atrocities a nation of heavily armed paranoiacs could accomplish.

But hey, thanks to the Times OC, I know I'm safe from the deadly bean sprout. And now, please excuse me: I'm going to hide under my bed.

Frighten Wyn at machineage@mediaone.net.
 
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