As a mom, I'm always thinking about my kids' safety.
But as a lawyer, I'm always thinking about people's rights.
Last week? A bizarre intersection of the two in the sleepy little town I call home.
I live in a Philadelphia suburb where pretty much nothing ever happens. We have no commercial base. We have almost no crime. We do have some of the best public schools in the state, easy access to the city, and designation by Money magazine as one of the ten best places in the U.S. to raise a family.
We also have remarkably involved parents, parents who pay very high taxes and demand a lot from the town police force and the school district administration. But when I say "involved," I'm usually talking about parents who volunteer in the schools and coach sports teams and take their kids to the many museums and parks and cultural institutions the area has to offer.
This week, "involved" and "demanding" took on a sinister tone.
It all started on Friday afternoon. I was home early from work, getting ready to celebrate my eleven year-old's birthday while trying to get some last minute grading done. My email pinged. It was an "alert" from the town Chief of Police (names and contact information changed for reasons you'll soon understand, but all other details left exactly as written).
On Thursday, 09 FEB 12 at approximately 12:00 Noon, there was a suspicious male standing at the school bus stop at Maple Rd and Birch Rd. A parent reported that she saw an older white male (50 to 60) wearing a camouflage jacket and blue jeans standing by the bus stop. When the parent approached the male and asked if she could help him, he said nothing and walked towards Main Street. The Police Dept would like to identify this person. If this person is seen in the area, please call 911 immediately. Extra Patrol will be given this area. If you have any information, please contact Det Smith at 610-555-5555 Ext 555. - Chief Jones.
Like any parent, at first, I was alarmed, just as the "alert" intended me to be. There was a man at the bus stop? And a mother noticed him and tried to talk to him, but he didn't respond? What the heck?
But then the lawyer sitting on my other shoulder started talking. And when she did, I was pretty confused. After hearing from my twelve year-old that she and her classmates had been kept inside at recess, I sent an email back:
As a parent, I appreciate being notified of safety issues in the school district. The message from today, however, seems unnecessarily alarmist. From what I can gather, a man was standing on a public street yesterday? And we are supposed to call 911 if we see an "older" man standing on a public street today? I'm not sure how to respond to this message, as he would likely have changed his clothes since yesterday, and your report doesn't offer any information about activity that would be suspicious or criminal.
I have concerns that messages like this will prevent people from paying attention to real emergencies. I also have concerns that people will feel unwelcome in our community if the police are watching their every move.
I understand from my middle school daughter that her homeroom teacher made a "big deal" about it in class today. I am also worried about unnecessarily scaring our children.
If there is more information about why we should be concerned about this man, it would be helpful to know it, as well as any more specific identifying information. Otherwise, I am concerned about the potential for misperceptions about our community.
After four days, the chief of police still had not replied. The news had not reported that any children in our suburb had been kidnapped or molested. My kids had finally started listening to my assurances not to worry.
But a little lawyerly voice kept nagging me: I wonder if they went after this guy?
I soon had an answer. Tuesday afternoon: another email.
UPDATE****UPDATE- Tuesday, 14 February 2012
This person has been identified. He is a local resident who has just moved into the area. Det Smith has spoken to him and he understood the concerns of the other neighbors. There was NOTHING suspicious about his actions. The police Dept only wanted to identify him and explain the neighbors' concerns.
So, wait. The man had been doing nothing wrong? Nothing suspicious? And a mother's baseless concerns about a man standing on a public street had been enough to mobilize the police department to send out alerts to all town parents, instructing parents to call 911 and teachers to keep our children inside? What was happening in our small town? And, bigger than that, what was happening in America, that moms would be so worried over nothing, police would feel the pressure to respond to nothing, and an innocent man who had recently moved into what was supposed to be a great community would be apprehended, identified, and "spoken to" over nothing?
Now I wasn't alarmed. I was just sad.
I sent one final email.
Chief Jones: I emailed you last week to express my concern. My concern seems to have been well-placed. I am really taken aback that middle schoolers were not allowed to go outside for a break and residents were told to dial 911, all over this. I am also concerned that many ill-advised calls were made because we had NO description of the man other than his age and clothing. Most men in our town are middle-aged and wear blue jeans! All in all, I think this whole situation was quite outrageous.
I hope the school district will think hard before sending out emergency alerts and scaring school children and alienating new residents.
And today, I did what I always do when I feel sad or excited or angry: I wrote about it.
Here's what I hope for my fellow residents. I hope that we'll act neighborly to each other, teach our children to trust instead of fear, and treat newcomers as friends rather than threats.
Here's what I hope for my town's police force. I hope that Chief Jones will resist pressure from residents to overreact to what he admits were suspicionless circumstances. I hope that, in the face of a real threat, he will send out detailed information that will aid residents in identifying dangerous persons in our midst. And I hope that he will devote town resources to educating his force about citizens' rights on public streets.
Here's what I hope for my children. I hope this is the scariest and most unfair situation they'll ever encounter in our sleepy little town.
And here's what I hope for that (blessedly) unnamed man. I hope you got apologies up, down, and sideways. And I wish you peace.