How Not to Catch a Thief
by Ari Armstrong, August 30, 2005
On Monday night (August 29) I needlessly put my safety at risk. I write this in order to encourage you to think about this sort of thing ahead of time so that, hopefully, you'll be smarter than I was, or at least better-prepared.
Here's the story. On Monday night my wife wanted to use the computer, so I decided to go watch a movie. (War of the Worlds; not bad for the cheap screen.) I returned home around midnight. As I pulled into the parking lot, a man walked past me on the sidewalk. He waved; I waved back.
I got out of the car and walked behind the man toward my place. I didn't recognize him, but I figured he was either new to the complex or a friend of a resident. Then he did something peculiar. He stopped on the sidewalk and stooped to tie his shoe. This seemed very artificial to me, so I became guarded.
I walked to my door keeping some awareness of where the man was, unlocked my door, went inside, and locked the door behind me. The thought crossed my mind that the man might try to rush me as I opened the door.
It was a mistake for me to walk past the man after he was acting suspiciously. Now the man now knows exactly where I live -- my biggest regret. So why did I do it? I was surprised by the situation. I didn't want to be paranoid. He didn't seem to be armed, and he didn't seem to be big enough to easily overpower me. But he easily could have had a hidden weapon.
What should I have done? Generally, it's a good idea to check your surroundings before you enter your car and before you turn it off and leave it. It probably would have been a good idea for me not to leave the car at all. I could have left the engine running until I had a better sense of the situation. I don't have a cell phone, but if I'd had one that would have been a good time to get it out. Nobody wants to be paranoid about crime, but by the same token it only takes one time. It's far better to drive away than to risk a confrontation with a possible aggressor, one who may be armed and/or under the influence of alcohol or some other drug.
Once I saw the man seemingly pretend to tie his shoe, I should have returned to my vehicle, not walked past him and gone inside.
Perhaps a minute or two after entering my home I looked out the peephole of my door. I saw what appeared to be the man wheeling away a lawn mower from underneath the stairs.
This is where I made a huge mistake. I should have immediately called 911 and reported a suspected theft. If everything went perfectly, a police officer would have arrived quickly and caught the guy. But my major error was not in failing to call the police. My major error was giving the man too much of the benefit of the doubt. Even after strong proof that the man was a thief, I was still thinking of ways he might be innocent. Perhaps he knew the owner of the lawnmower. Yea, right: and he was trying to borrow it at MIDNIGHT?! What an idiot I was! But it's easy to be surprised by criminal acts.
I think I made two related errors. First, I felt macho enough to confront the guy alone. He was smaller than me and appeared to be unarmed. Second, I didn't want the embarrassment of calling the cops and annoying a neighbor over a silly misunderstanding. This is a reasonable concern. But in this case the evidence was very clear. To review: 1. I saw a strange man walking the property at around midnight. 2. He behaved suspiciously by apparently pretending to tie his shoe while I went inside. 3. I saw him push a lawnmower that I knew belonged to somebody else (though it was hard to see details through the peephole). THE GUY IS A THIEF! CALL THE POLICE! But sometimes I'm too clever (by which I mean rationalistic) for my own good.
So instead of calling the police about a known thief and monitoring from the relative safety of my abode, I opted to confront the guy. Alone and unarmed. Dumb. Dumb. Dumb.
I did check my immediate surroundings, first through the peephole and then through the open door. Then I locked the door behind me. I found the man walking down the sidewalk around the corner, and at least I kept some distance. The lawnmower was not in sight.
The man was very disarming in his demeanor, I have to say. Very polite (well, at this stage), and an excellent liar. "Do you live here?" I asked. Yes. "What unit number?" He gave vague, dismissive answers. "I'm just going for a walk; I'm sorry I was on your property." But I kept at it. Finally he gave me an answer I knew was a flat-out lie. But at this point I seemed stuck with a bad strategy. He was walking steadily away down the sidewalk, then across the street. What was I going to do at this point? I threatened to call the police. An idle threat, given I had no cell. I did ring the doorbell at a home where the lights were on. Nobody answered the door (which continues to irritate me).
So there I was, following a thief down the road. I could have tried to tackle him. But I still wasn't entirely sure he was unarmed, or that he wasn't a great street-fighter. So I opted against this approach.
The man walked to a drainage ditch lined with pretty, large white stones. He picked up two of the stones, at which point I decided to run in the opposite direction. I figured he would try to throw them at me, but he didn't. At the time, I had visions of him bashing my skull in. But, in retrospect, it seems clear that his purpose was to get me off his tail so he could escape. His strategy worked. He chased after me for a while as he made threatening comments. I remember feeling rather alone at that point.
I got home and called the police. The officer who arrived acted professionally, and he found the lawnmower and two weed-eaters that had been left at the periphery of the property. However, at that point there wasn't much the cop could do. The thief was gone.
The officer and I did notify the owner of the property, who was relieved that it was still in his possession. So I did accomplish something good, despite my foolishness. I prevented the theft of, I don't know, maybe a couple hundred dollars worth of property. And hopefully the thief got the idea that he shouldn't come back here.
I've considered a few points about the incident.
1. I didn't really know whether the guy was armed. He could have had a knife or a gun in a pocket or inside his belt. As I was following him, he could have lunged with a knife attack. He could have turned around and shot me in the gut, then walked over to finish me off. All over a damn lawnmower.
2. It's a bit surprising how the situation escalated quickly from me thinking the man was behaving suspiciously, to me being chased down the street by the same man armed with large stones. Your body processes do change under stress. That's one reason why it's important to think about these sorts of situations before you get into them. You want to know (generally) what to do in advance so that you're not overloaded when the emergency arrives.
3. I was surprisingly bad at remembering specific details about the thief. I got some of the important ones, but honestly I don't think I could identify the guy in a line-up. Stress again, plus a lack of specific effort to memorize these details.
4. It's usually far, far easier to prevent a crime than to stop one once it's started. Good self-defense isn't usually about taking out the bad guy; it's about not getting into situations in which a bad guy threatens you.
5. A lawnmower is not worth a potentially dangerous confrontation, especially when calling the cops would have actually made the thief's apprehension more likely. I suppose you should consider in advance what you're willing to die for. I can honestly say there's nothing I own worth putting my life in danger, even if the danger is only minor. Everything I own is fairly easy to replace. I think people tend to make it a point of pride. "You're not getting my purse/car/whatever!" But is it worth your life? Seriously. Stuff is replaceable. You're not.
6. This guy obviously scoped out the place ahead of time. He knew what he wanted to steal and where it was located. (Apparently the thief had no prior relationship with the owner of the items.)
7. A guy stupid, irrational, and bad enough to steal a lawnmower is stupid, irrational, and bad enough to do all sorts of other bad things.
8. Where you live matters, and your relationships with your neighbors matter. I was more than a little disappointed when nobody came to the door where I rang.
9. Calling the police really isn't going to stop a crime in most situations. It might have in this case (if I had called earlier). Of course, I live in a place where the police can respond rapidly. That isn't the case for many areas.
10. A cell phone can be a very useful safety tool if used intelligently. I understand you can use a charged cell phone to call 911 even if you're not on any plan. Having an emergency communication device is well worth the hassle of getting a cell and keeping it charged (if you don't already have a cell). I plan to get one.
11. A concealed gun can be a useful defensive tool of last resort. I've already determined that, in this situation, I should not have confronted the man at all. Nevertheless, as I was running down the street being chased by a man threatening me with two large rocks, the thought occurred to me that I would have rather had a gun holstered at my side, just in case he was faster than me. Unfortunately, not even the best strategies can always prevent a violent confrontation. But if you choose the option of concealed carry, check out the laws carefully and get some good training.
12. Writing about my mistakes isn't very fun. I hope my friends will at least give me partial credit for learning some lessons from my mistakes and encouraging others to do likewise.
13. We all have an interest in stopping crime. If we want to live in a peaceful, safe society, we have a responsibility to take appropriate steps to deter crime. So be proactive, but be smart about it. Think about scenarios ahead of time. Have discussions with your family about what to do in particular situations. Know ahead of time when it's worth it to risk a violent confrontation. Your first responsibility is to your own safety and the safety of your loved ones.