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Tuesday, March 19 , 2019, 3:48 am | Fog/Mist 53º


Susan Estrich: Fear of Crime and the Cost of Caution

By now, probably everyone in the world knows that Los Angeles fell for what has been determined was a "hoax."

It was not a serious and credible threat like the one that led Brussels to close its entire city; rather it was, as a former NYPD detective described it, a "cut-and-paste" job that could have been done by just about anybody.

New York is claiming credit for not shutting down its school system after receiving a similar threat.

So this time New York was smart and lucky. You need both. Los Angeles, which has not been so lucky lately, wasn't willing to take a risk. I can't say I blame them.

The events in San Bernardino, not very far from LA, would give anyone pause. I sure wouldn't want to be the police chief who didn't respond to a threat only to have an explosion at a public school.

This is the challenge of living in times of terror. We all live on edge — not as severely as Israelis and Palestinians do — but we're a little more cautious than we're used to being.

I usually run through airports on autopilot, but I noticed all kinds of little things the other day. Was that man going to pick up the suitcase? What did that woman have in her wheelchair?

There we were, a gate full of delayed travelers, reading paperback spy novels and looking around carefully. 

There is nothing wrong with looking around carefully. It is what we are told to do. Better safe than sorry — but only up to a point.

That point is where our wariness stops contributing to public safety and only feeds our fear.

Criminologists have long understood that the fear of crime can exact a greater social cost than crime itself.

When residents refuse to go out at night, they not only make the neighborhood less safe (and usually, their estimations of its danger are off) but they also hurt all of the merchants who depend on their business.

This damages business far more than the threat of a break-in (which is more likely on deserted streets, in any event).

Most of us don't suffer from crime on a particular day or week or month; but every time we avoid certain neighborhoods and businesses, every time we decide to stay home rather than risk a parking space or a subway ride, we add to the cost of fear.

No one has yet estimated the cost of the one-day closing in Los Angeles, and whatever its official cost, it won't measure all that is lost when parents run back after dropping their children to try to find them and, when they do, figure out what to do with them all day while they work.

Not an easy day for families in LA. Not to mention that one teen was killed crossing the street on the way home from school. Every decision has costs.

Sadly, we now live in an era where such decisions will be made every day. Would we even know about the threat to New York had LA not reacted this way? 

Here is my hope. I accept that LA was wrong as it turned out. Whether it was wrong to close the schools according to its own standards, we don't know. 

But I'd still rather be safe than sorry. I know fear exacts a cost, but I, for one, will be less fearful if I can trust my government to take fewer chances rather than more of them.

Susan Estrich is a best-selling author, the Robert Kingsley Professor of Law and Political Science at the USC Law Center and was campaign manager for 1988 Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis. Click here to contact her or click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.

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