Alarming Trend

Alarming Trend

Are you ready for your close-up, Mr. Burglar?

| Published:

I’m a reluctant fan of a video genre fast catching on in suburbia: thieves captured on home security cameras.

No video better illustrates the appeal than the footage a Texas family captured late last year of two uniformed deliverymen dropping packages on their doorstep while they were out for the day. First, a Federal Express employee leaves a box containing a new Apple iPad mini just outside the front door. About four hours later, a UPS deliveryman drops a second package there and walks away. So far, so good. But suddenly the UPS man steps back into the frame and steals the iPad that Federal Express had delivered.

Cut. Email to cops. Upload to YouTube. That’s a wrap.

Watching that video spurred Bethesda’s Otto Troxler, 43, to buy a $69.99 home security camera on Amazon. He set up his new motion-activated, night-vision camera to record activity near his front door and store footage on a home computer.

A few days later, Troxler was waiting for a delivery when someone rang his doorbell and banged on his front door with odd insistence. Troxler opened the door to find a teenager who mumbled something about looking for someone before taking off with two young men who were waiting down the block.

Suspicious that they were trolling for empty houses to rob, Troxler called 911, then checked to see if his new security camera had recorded their faces. It had. The teens were arrested swiftly and charged with burglarizing two homes in nearby neighborhoods that day.

Troxler, who owns American Fingerprinting Services in Bethesda and works as a civilian employee of the Montgomery County Police Department, has since installed a second home security camera.

“I was telling my wife we should put a sign up outside our house, saying, ‘Smile, you are on camera,’ ” Troxler says. “But we haven’t done it—not yet.”

I’ve always loved the title of A.M. Homes’ short story collection, The Safety of Objects. The title is, of course, ironic. These tales, including one about a boy erotically obsessed with his sister’s Barbie doll, are about suburban discontent amid an empire of things.

I trace my own gnawing skepticism about the safety of objects to the summer in college when I shadowed radical homeless advocate Mitch Snyder through the District’s most desolate corridors of poverty and addiction. Snyder said two things that shocked me and stuck: Anyone who owns two pairs of shoes when others have none is a thief. And: Owning anything of value is a burden, causing the owner to worry about it being lost, damaged or stolen.

Thirty-two years, three houses, three Hondas, one Saturn station wagon and a closet full of shoes later, I still believe Snyder was right—and not just because a falling tree crushed my station wagon, downed power lines and set the lawn next door on fire in a scene of suburban Armageddon.

My husband and I recently tried to help someone with a checkered past and wound up being robbed for our troubles. Creepiest of all was that some sentimental objects of little value to anyone but us were lifted. It was as if the thief was trying to steal our happiness.

We changed our locks, canceled the stolen credit cards and told each other that belongings weren’t what mattered to us. Still, we couldn’t shake the feeling that our cozy home had been invaded by something previously foreign to us: fear.

Since digging a moat is against code, we did what more than 20 million American households have done in recent decades. We bought a tricked-out home security system, though $3,195 later, we feel no safer.

On a recent afternoon, I was in the District when the alarm company telephoned to say one of our motion detectors had triggered an alarm to police. I rushed home only to realize that my dog had likely jumped onto the furniture, generating a false alarm. The owner of the company that installed my alarm system headed over to make adjustments. He was still there when two nice Montgomery County police officers arrived—90 minutes after my alarm had sounded.

I don’t fault the police. My new system generated three false alarms the first month. The overwhelming majority of home burglar alarms reported to police nationwide—98 percent by some accounts—are false. If police made it their top priority to investigate each one instantly, they’d get little else done.

As of December, 68,208 households had registered security systems with Montgomery County, a 132 percent increase since 1995. Reliance on home security systems is expected to continue growing as new technology allows homeowners to arm their alarms, lock doors, turn on lights, even check for leaky pipes from anywhere in the world using smartphones and touch-screen tablets.

Having a home security system—like having an alert dog, outdoor lighting and strong locks—does deter burglars who prefer easy targets. But as police and burglars know, Americans’ decadeslong spending spree on home alarms and monthly monitoring fees has done little to help catch more burglars.

“The clearance rate for U.S. burglaries has remained below 15 percent for many years,” a 2011 report for the U.S. Justice Department says. “Clearly, whatever contribution burglar alarms are making to solving burglary cases is modest, at best.”

Then again, not everyone’s bogeyman is a burglar.

Jeff Young, owner of Potomac Security Systems, recalls explaining to one suburban couple the various equipment he could install to try to deter burglaries. The wife stopped him cold. They weren’t that worried about burglars, she said. They wanted an alarm system that would keep their teenage daughter from sneaking out at night. Young installed a system in which the parents receive a text message whenever their daughter punches in her unique code to disarm the system and leave the house.

If that strikes you as too Orwellian, don’t visit the home security department at Micro Center in Rockville. Two years ago, the store stocked just a few shelves of home security cameras. Now an entire aisle is devoted to them.

Unwilling to give up entirely on the safety of objects, my husband and I have joined the throngs of homeowners shopping for security cameras. We’re looking for ones big enough to deter camera-shy burglars, yet small enough that we’ll someday forget why they’re there.

Smile, or not, for the camera.

April Witt is an award-winning journalist who lives in Bethesda. To suggest column ideas, email aprilwitt@hotmail.com.

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