Bet­ter safe than sorry

Our view: Ev­ery po­lice de­part­ment should des­ig­nate ‘safe zones’ for clas­si­fied deals

Baltimore Sun - - FROM PAGE ONE -

It used to be that the big­gest danger Craigslist posed was to the news­pa­per in­dus­try in the form of lost clas­si­fied ads. But to­day, some users of the site are pos­ing a phys­i­cal threat to the pub­lic, set­ting up phony sales trans­ac­tions, job in­ter­views and ap­point­ments as a means to rob or at­tack re­spon­ders.

There have been at least 105 homi­cides as­so­ci­ated with such meet­ings since 2007, ac­cord­ing to a web­site that tracks “Craigslist killings” through me­dia ac­counts, the most re­cent oc­cur­ring last month in Ge­or­gia, when a man was shot to death af­ter re­spond­ing to an ad for an iPhone. In one hor­rific case in Colorado, a woman’s 7-month old fe­tus was fa­tally cut from her uterus in 2015 af­ter she re­sponded to a post­ing for baby clothes. (The at­tacker was sen­tenced to 100 years in prison in April.) And in 2009, a Bos­ton Univer­sity med­i­cal stu­dent was ac­cused of ar­rang­ing meet­ings with sev­eral women via Craigslist, then rob­bing them at gun­point (once catch­ing a flight to Bal­ti­more im­me­di­ately after­ward to visit his grand­par­ents for Passover) and later killing one; po­lice said the stu­dent, Philip Markoff, who com­mit­ted sui­cide while await­ing trial, was on his way to be­com­ing a se­rial killer when he was caught.

Nu­mer­ous other in­juries and at­tacks linked to Craigslist also have been recorded through­out the coun­try, in­clud­ing in Mary­land. In Au­gust, a Sykesville man was shot in the fore­head when he met with a sup­posed buyer for his dirt bike in Bal­ti­more. In Havre de Grace last year, a Delaware man said he was robbed while try­ing to buy a car. And in Bolton Hill in 2012, both buyer and seller brought guns to a ve­hi­cle sale, with the sup­posed seller try­ing to rob the buyer, whose girl­friend fired a shot into the air, lead­ing the gun­man to drop his weapon and run.

While the vast ma­jor­ity of Craigslist deals are le­git­i­mate, the site, which now has more than 60 mil­lion users each month in the U.S. alone, rec­om­mends meet­ing in a pub­lic place “like a cafe, bank or shop­ping cen­ter.” But even that didn’t pro­tect an Edge­wood teen this year; the young man ar­ranged to sell a video game at a pop­u­lar gas sta­tion in Jan­uary only to have the so-called buyer rob him at gun­point, af­ter first try­ing to pay with a fake $50 bill.

We were pleased, then, to see that the Howard County Po­lice De­part­ment re­cently joined roughly 300 other law en­force­ment agen­cies na­tion­wide — in­clud­ing the An­napo­lis Po­lice De­part­ment — in of­fer­ing safe zones for such clas­si­fied sales trans­ac­tions. We would en­cour­age the rest of the state’s po­lice de­part­ments to do the same. There’s very lit­tle cost or ef­fort in­volved, and it could save a life. And in ju­ris­dic­tions like Bal­ti­more, where re­la­tions are strained be­tween the com­mu­nity and of­fi­cers, such zones could en­gen­der some much-needed good will.

Howard fol­lowed the model many po­lice de­part­ments use, des­ig­nat­ing cer­tain park­ing spots at both the north­ern and south­ern dis­tricts as “trans­ac­tion safe places” for buy­ers and sell­ers to meet. Po­lice of­fi­cers don’t over­see the sales, but the site is mon­i­tored by sur­veil­lance video and clearly marked as a safe zone. In all, the de­part­ment spent about a hun­dred bucks for sig­nage.

“We’re al­ways looking for ways to make the com­mu­nity’s life safer, [and] I thought this was a great idea,” Lt. Jen­nifer Reidy-Hall told the Howard County Times this month. “You al­ways hear about trans­ac­tions go­ing badly and see the Face­book posts about homi­cide or rob­beries that had happened dur­ing Craigslist trans­ac­tions.”

An­napo­lis launched its safe zone pro­gram at po­lice head­quar­ters last year, with of­fi­cers some­times check­ing the goods pre-sale to make sure they’re not stolen. And oth­ers have been crop­ping up across the coun­try, from Cal­i­for­nia to Maine, ac­cord­ing to the web­site safedeal.zone, which of­fers a search­able safe zone map and free “safe deal zone” lo­gos for down­load.

Of course, there’s noth­ing stop­ping you from ar­rang­ing to meet a buyer or seller at your lo­cal po­lice sta­tion on your own, even if it doesn’t have a des­ig­nated trans­ac­tion spot. If the per­son you’re deal­ing with balks at the idea, it’s a safe bet that’s a per­son you don’t want to meet.

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