The ‘ground rules’ aren’t the same in the US, as in many other countries. If you follow the rules, your chances of being a victim are as low as in most European cities – but break the rules and they rise dramatically.
The US has always had an extremely high crime rate, due in no small measure to the vast number of guns. However, the trend over the last decade has been improving.
Most Americans support gun registration, although few favour a complete ban on the sale and possession of guns (Americans cannot understand why foreigners fail to grasp their obsession with guns). However, owning a gun is little deterrent against crime, as you must be ready and able to use it. Most people could never react quickly enough to a threatening incident, and statistics show that a gun is over 20 times more likely to kill a family member, friend or acquaintance than to kill an intruder.
Many children accidentally kill themselves or their playmates with guns that are left lying around homes (half the guns in US households aren’t kept under lock and key). Despite the statistics, the National Rifle Association (NRA) insists that any connection between gun ownership and crime is purely coincidental!
Black-on-black crime is the biggest problem in the US and the middle-class US has largely ignored the urban warfare raging in inner-city areas. Most whites live in rural areas and communities hermetically sealed from the trigger-happy chaos of the US’s black urban life. However, there are increasing signs that the horror of the US’s romance with the gun is spreading to small town, white America.
One of the most worrying aspects is the increase in violent crime committed by children: in recent years there have been a number of high-profile ‘massacres’ perpetrated by children aged as young as eight. Schools routinely check children for weapons (using metal detectors), and many inner-city schools have armed security guards and a prison-like regime in order to reduce crime.
The crime rate varies considerably according to the region (the west has the most crime, the Northeast the least) and city, although the recent application of a ‘zero tolerance’ policing policy in many major cities has resulted in a dramatic reduction in crime rates, which are currently at their lowest for 25 years. In recent years, the right wing view has held sway, the majority believing that crime will go away if only they get tough, build more prisons, lock offenders away longer and execute more murderers.
Despite the statistics, the vast majority of Americans manage to get through the day without being molested, mugged, knifed or shot (or even witnessing such events), and most live to a ripe old age and die natural deaths (if over-consumption can ever be called natural!). Although crime and violence are among the most disturbing aspects of life in the US, it’s important to maintain a sense of perspective, as heightened anxiety or paranoia about crime can be just as bad or worse than being a victim (and is a complete waste of time and effort).
Nevertheless, anyone coming to live in the US would be wise to choose a low-crime, middle class suburb and avoid ‘high-crime’ areas (e.g. most inner cities) at all times, as well as following the guidelines below.
Crime Prevention & Safety
Staying safe is largely a matter of common sense and you should observe the following guidelines.
- At night, stick to brightly lit main streets and avoid secluded areas (best of all, take a taxi). Avoid parks and keep to a park’s main paths or where there are other people during the day. If you find yourself in a deserted area late at night, remain calm and look as though you know where you’re going by walking briskly. If you must wait for a train or bus at night, do so in the main waiting room, a well lit area, or where there’s a guard or policeman. If possible, avoid using subways in the late evening or after midnight.
- Walk in the opposite direction to the traffic so no-one can kerb-crawl (drive alongside you), and walk on the outside of the pavement, so you’re less likely to be mugged from a doorway.
- When you’re in an unfamiliar city ask a policeman, taxi driver or local person if there are any unsafe neighbourhoods (all major cities have ‘no-go’ areas at night and some have areas that are to be avoided at any time) – and avoid them! Women should take care and should never hitchhike or accept lifts with strangers (rape statistics are extremely high and most go unreported).
- Carry the bare minimum of cash with you, often referred to as ‘mugger’s money’, because in the event that you’re mugged, it’s usually sufficient to satisfy a mugger and prevent him from becoming violent (or searching further). In some cities, parents give their children mugger’s money as a matter of course whenever they leave home. Never resist a mugger. It’s far better to lose your wallet and jewellery than your life. Many muggers are desperate and irrational people (officially known as emotionally disturbed persons or EDPs) under the influence of drugs, and can turn violent if resisted. Some experts advise you to keep your cash in at least two separate places and to split cash and credit cards. Don’t keep your passport, green card, driving licence and other important documents in your wallet or purse where they can be stolen. Anaesthetic sprays or ordinary hair or insect sprays are carried by some people to deter assailants (as are pepper sprays and mace). These are, however, of little use against an armed assailant and may increase the likelihood of violence. Many cities and states require registration or licensing for those carrying mace or pepper sprays and local police forces sometimes offer training classes in their use.
- Warn your children of the dangers of American ‘street life’, particularly if you’ve been living in a country where it’s taken for granted that you can safely go almost anywhere at any time of day or night. It may be necessary to totally re-educate your family regarding all aspects of public life. Wherever you live and whatever the age of your children, you should warn them against taking unnecessary risks and discourage them from frequenting remote or high risk areas, talking to strangers, or attracting unwanted attention.
- Don’t leave cash, cheques, credit cards, passports, jewellery and other valuables lying around or even hidden in your home (the crooks know all the hiding places). Store anything of value in a home safe or a bank safety deposit box and ensure that you have adequate insurance. Good quality door and window locks and an alarm helps, but may not deter a determined thief. In many cities, triple door locks, metal bars and steel gratings on windows are standard fittings. Most city dwellers always lock their doors and windows, even when going out for a few minutes. Apartments are often fitted with a security system, so you can speak to visitors before allowing them access to your building. Luxury apartment buildings have armed guards in the lobby with closed-circuit TV and voice identification systems. In addition, most apartments have a peephole and security chain, so you can check a caller’s identity before opening the door. Be careful who you allow into your home and always check the identity of anyone claiming to be an official inspector or an employee of a utility company. Ask for identification (ID) and confirm it with their office before opening the door.
- If you live in a city, you should be wary of anyone hanging around outside your home or apartment block. Have your keys ready and enter your home as quickly as possible.
- Never make it obvious that no-one is at home by leaving tell-tale signs such as a pile of newspapers or letters. Many people leave lights, a radio or a TV on (activated by random timers) when they aren’t at home. Ask your neighbours to keep an eye on your home when you’re on holiday. Many towns have ‘crime watch’ areas, where residents keep an eye open for suspicious characters and report them to the local police.
- If you’re driving, keep to the main highways and avoid high-risk areas. Never drive in cities with your windows or doors open or valuables (such as handbags or wallets) on the seats. Take extra care at night in car parks and when returning to your car, and never sleep in your car. If you have an accident in a dangerous or hostile area (any inner-city area), police advise you not to stop, but to drive to the nearest police station to report it. In remote areas, accidents are sometimes staged to rob unsuspecting drivers (called highway hold-ups) and cars are deliberately bumped to get drivers to stop (again, seek out the nearest police station). If you stop at an accident in a remote area or are flagged down, keep the engine running and in gear and your doors locked (ready to make a quick getaway), and only open your window a fraction to speak to someone. In some states, hire car drivers are targeted by muggers (after a spate of attacks on tourists in Florida, rented cars are now indistinguishable from private vehicles) and you should be wary of collecting a hire car from an airport at night.
Police forces, the federal government, local communities and security companies all publish information and advice regarding crime prevention, and your local police department will usually carry out a free home security check.
This article is an extract from Living and Working in America. Click here to get a copy now.