Monday, April 28, 2008

Muggings in Glen Park and Bernal Heights

The Bay Area's spike in armed crime by very young men continues. A story in this morning's SF Chron by Marisa Lagos details a string of gun point robberies in two nearby SF Neighborhoods, both situated on hillsides above the Noe Valley and Mission Districts. With views and close access to freeways, the once mostly working class neighborhoods have undergone considerable gentrification. According to police, the robbers likely drive from other areas, cruising the streets until they spot victims walking from BART stations or ATM stations. After confronting the lone victim at a moment of isolation, they use their cars to drive nearby gas stations where they attempt to use the victim's credit cards for gas before they are reported stolen. Police believe they may rob several victims before leaving the neighborhood.

These brazen gun point robberies by relatively young robbers fit an alarming pattern, one that is already leading to calls for a police crackdown (see earlier posts on this wave). Like most crime patterns, however, this one probably has its roots in situational factors unlikely to respond to a generalized increased in arrests or threats of even longer prison sentences. Here are a few theories to test for yourself.

The rise of the laptop, the Black-Berry, the I-Pod, Phone, etc., means the right kind of pedestrian (young, college educated or a student) is likely to be carrying over a thousand dollars worth of electronics on their person at any time. Moreover, these are goods that have immediate value to robbers and enduring value on the black market (unlike televisions, desk top computers, etc.)

The rise of ATM customer fees may have led more people to carry more cash on them. That, along with the above, raises the expected gain from each attempted robbery, while the costs have remained the same. Should we raise the cost of robbery by raising sentences for robbers? The problem is we've already raised them quite high and very young people are certifiably less capable of evaluating the cost side of the equation in any event.

An unusually dry April has increased the number of pedestrians walking from BART stations rather than waiting for a bus.

What should we do? Invest more in police tactics to raise the likelihood of arresting suspected robbers at or near the scene of the crime and while they are still carrying evidence (eye witnesses are notoriously unreliable when robbed at gun point). It may take a while for police to develop the right series of decoys, stake-outs, camera surveillance technology, etc. This will produce much more deterrence then threatening draconian prison sentences that many our youth neither reflect on nor fear. For young people with high discount rates on the future (economic talk for being focused on the present) arrest, and the prospect of spending the night in jail rather than enjoying the fruits of their crimes may have more deterrent value than months of extra time in prison later.

In the meantime, as citizens we need to chill out on the crime panic talk. We live in the Bay Area. We have chosen not to hide ourselves in gated communities. Let us embrace our freedom by aggressively walking the commercial streets of our communities, together as often as possible, and accept our risks wisely and with determination to reduce them through smart rather than emotional decisions.

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